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The Statement

Saturday, April 19, 2014

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Off the record

By Sam Gringlas, Daily Staff Reporter
Published February 11, 2013

Two members of Zeta Beta Tau, a brotherhood no longer recognized by University Greek Life or ZBT nationals, offered to speak with the Daily but required viewing and approving the article before being published, which Daily policy forbids.

Seiler said if the newly installed presidents saw more balanced coverage without an “ulterior motive,” they would likely feel more comfortable speaking with the media.

In “Pledged, the Secret Life of Sororities,” journalist Alexandra Robbins goes undercover to provide an inside look at sorority life, investigating issues such as hazing and psychological abuse.

In an email interview, Robbins said lack of openness is often dangerous and makes reporting incidents, such as hazing, more difficult.

“Secrecy makes it more difficult for a reporter to penetrate an organization,” Robbins wrote. “When members won't talk to the press, we have to take alternative — and sometimes less desirable — measures, like going undercover, to share the story.”

Still, Seiler said not all information has a place in the public discourse.

“I think if there’s something negative going on, is it the business of everybody?” Seiler said. “Does it serve some purpose to have it out in the media? And I would say sometimes negative things have a purpose. But if we’re taking positive steps not just to deal with those incidents and taking those steps throughout the year, then that information can be positive.”

The consequence of secrecy

While mostly respectful, these interactions are not void of tension. Often the stakes are high and the repercussions are vast, especially when this relationship plays out at the federal level. Forty years after Watergate — the infamous Washington Post investigation that launched a revival of investigative journalism and the resignation of a president — wrongdoing, misuse and injustice remain as prevalent as the year Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s reporting rocked the nation.

Anthony Collings, a University professor of journalism ethics, knows the implications of secrecy first hand. As a former CNN reporter covering the Iran-Contra Affair — a political scandal in the late 1980s during which the Reagan adminsitration secretly sold weapons to Iran despite an arms embargo — Collings clearly remembers an interview with then-Congressman Dick Cheney.

“I remember that he would not answer my questions other than to keep repeating the same basic idea, but I wanted to find out more what happened,” Collings said. “There was no way he was going to help and my guess was being a Republican, he wanted to protect the Republican administration.”

Collings recalls the frustration of not being able to provide the public with the full truth of the scandal.

“Secrecy makes sense in some cases; obviously they’re protecting their sources and their methods,” Collings said. “When it gets excessive, then they’re depriving the public of information the public has a right to know.”

But while Watergate-esque investigative reporting may seem sexy, its implications have very real consequences.

“The biggest change in the media profession is the rush to judgment — the rush to get something out — and I think everyone that’s on the media side of things rushes sometimes because they want to be the first one to get the story,” Ablauf said. “Sometimes there’s going to be things that fall through the cracks that they don’t fact check; they don’t have their information accurate.”

But when reported ethically and accurately, tough stories can be powerful. It can mean the difference between stagnation and progress and between continued misconduct and justice.

On Capitol Hill, behind committee meeting doors, stadium gates and fraternity house fences, secrecy reverberates.

Every gate has its keepers; every day the interactions between sources and journalists continue to pulsate.


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