Less than 12 hours after TSL published the story about the Claremont-Mudd-Scripps track team's suspension that I co-wrote, I heard my name whiz across the Collins breakfast tables from people smearing my reporting ability. The article had already garnered thousands of views, and was proving to be controversial.
“TSL doesn’t have a right to post that.”
“They’re all just fake news.”
Statements like these came to embody the general attitude of many across the 5Cs in the coming weeks.
Their responses were not warranted. I was confused because, while reporting, we followed the ethical standards of journalism set out by the Society of Professional Journalists, including the mandate to seek truth and report it as accurately and responsibly as possible.
As the CMS track team has made concerted efforts to deny our legitimacy as a newspaper, they have instead solely provided evidence of their own ignorance. Their attempt to subvert information further demonstrates the need for a free press to convey truth on these campuses.
Accusations and intimidation
The snippets of conversation I overheard at Collins were but the tip of the iceberg. When I checked Facebook, I immediately saw comments on the story accusing us of unethical, incorrect, and biased reporting.
Discouraged, I went to class and tried to focus on something else. However, as soon as I sat down, I heard someone call out my name. Looking over, I saw a member of the CMS team, whose identity I will keep private to protect his dignity.
With everyone in the class listening, he called out: “How does it feel to make 114 people feel like shit?”
After class, he expressed his disgust toward the article. I explained how I wasn’t going to apologize for doing my job, and how all we had done was put public information into words.
Staring down at me, he put his hand firmly on my shoulder, telling me I should take the advice of coach John Goldhammer, who was quoted in the story: “You’re free to make choices, BUT you’re not free from the consequences.”
Whether or not my classmate had the intention to threaten me, I felt intimidated. Nonetheless, I remained confident in the importance of my reporting.
What we knew
The original version of the story was relatively simple. We knew that the team had been suspended. We knew that the incident was “part of an initiation event,” we had a comment from CMC confirming the suspension, and a copy of the email that Goldhammer had sent the team before the suspension was announced.
Most importantly, we had Claremont Police Department logs from that night, which gave us plenty of information that was completely public.
This is what we based our reporting on: public information.
With the original article we wrote, and every subsequent follow-up story, we did our best to report what we knew to be true, that there was an alleged assault by members of the team on a student employee at the Rains Center that night — the attack described in that same police report.
Our goal was never to attack, but solely to report truth.
Despite the fact that we reported the attack described in the police report as alleged, members of the team claimed we had reported these alleged events as fact. We had no intention of claiming that any details had been proven, as we repeatedly used “alleged” for this very reason.
And though we accidentally dropped the word “alleged” in one minor instance where information was unconfirmed, we were sure to make a correction and update the story accordingly.
Our main focus in reporting this story was to only report what we knew to be true from the information given, and that is why we made a concerted effort to include “alleged” while reporting on unconfirmed information.
Yet, more complaints about the story appeared on Facebook.
One commenter claimed the alleged details in story were outright false, and that it was biased by the number of Pomona students who work for TSL. Meanwhile, another citing a conflict of interest claimed the authors of the story run for the rival Pomona-Pitzer track team.
I attend CMC, definitely do not run for the P-P track team, and neither does Marc Rod PO ’20, my co-author. While Kellen Browning PO ’20, one of TSL’s managing editors and a P-P runner, did read the article, he in no way interfered with the story’s factual content.
And, again, we never confirmed anything as fact: we simply provided the public information given on the incident.
Claims of “fake news”
As all of these ridiculous claims surfaced, I realized that, somehow, team members were blaming us for their suspension, and that they had made TSL into a scapegoat.
As the days and weeks went on, they smeared our name to the 5C community, telling everyone that the story was “fake news,” while calling the publication “TSLies” and “To Spread Libel.”
They made “TSL Track Club” track jerseys mocking us, that say we were “BREAKING: Records, Rules, Standards of Ethical Journalism.”
Recently, they’ve been caught damaging and throwing away copies of TSL from Collins and Malott Dining Halls.
Every one of these alarming incidences illustrated to me how backwards the entire situation was.
We live in an age where the current U.S. president uses the term “fake news” to discredit reporting that puts him in a negative light. It’s an attack on the First Amendment, and one that directly threatens one of the public’s main checks on government power.
Members of the track team calling TSL “fake news” simply because the breaking story publicizes them negatively is exactly what the president is doing: further dividing people and attacking members of the press, who simply aim to hold people accountable.
Calling TSL “fake news,” despite us reporting on what was already public information, is absolutely baffling to me. The extent of the attack on TSL is extremely concerning.
It may be difficult for some to understand why we would report on the incident, given its potential backlash and added publicity to those involved. But as journalists, it was absolutely our job and responsibility to do so, because members of the public deserve to understand what is happening around them.
It is a natural human reaction to respond negatively when one is featured in such a way. However, instead of accepting the outcome, or voicing their concerns in a respectful and intellectual way, members of the team created a full-fledged attack — lashing out on the newspaper that merely informed others of the truth.
And while this response was discouraging, it also demonstrates TSL’s vital role on these campuses.
That team members believed they could discredit information reported about them by intimidating the writer, smearing the name of our publication, and stealing newspaper copies is terrifying.
The attitude that groups like the CMS track team can simply cover up public information that uncovers their faults — is one that cannot exist here. As the newspaper of record at the 5Cs, TSL is a crucial protector of the right to report what happens here.
Every community needs a free press that can hold institutions and people accountable for their actions. At the 5Cs, TSL fulfills that role. We were entirely within our rights and responsibility to report on the CMS track story, and I’ll always be glad that we did.
As we finish up this semester and move into the next school year, we will refuse to back down from intimidation. We will refuse to let other groups discredit our name. We will continue to work every day to report the truth, despite the concerning attitude around the idea of journalism at our schools.
Hank Snowdon CM ’21 is an applied math major from Columbus, Ohio, and is the current sports editor at TSL. He enjoys In-N-Out, Del Water Gap, and Clayton Kershaw’s curveball.