Daily Egyptian challenges chancellor’s ethics

In the past months the Daily Egyptian, the student newspaper at Southern Illinois University Carbondale, published a series of stories highlighting Chancellor Carlo Montemagno’s dealings at SIU since arriving to the university in July. These stories include his role in hiring family and using university money to move them to Carbondale from Alberta, Canada.

The reports in the campus newspaper shed light on the hirings of the chancellor’s daughter and son-in-law. The positions into which they were hired were not advertised, according to documents obtained by the DE.
As our student newspaper dug deeper into the story, it found the chancellor used university money to move his family members to the university. He has since reimbursed SIU $11,146.42 for the moving costs of a second household initially covered by the university-granted moving expenses.

It all started when the DE was tipped off Thursday, Jan. 25, about the relationships between new hirings and the chancellor. The paper’s Tuesday print deadline loomed.

Most of the following five days were spent deciphering dozens of documents, reaching out to sources and putting timelines together. Over the weekend, reporter Anna Spoerre conducted interviews, made phone calls and reread documents.

The first story in the series surrounding Montemagno took shape, and the Tuesday headline read ”University hires chancellor’s daughter, son-in-law.”

SIU president Randy Dunn, far left, chancelor Carlo Montemagno and his wife wPam Montemagno Friday, Nov. 10, 2017, before the annual Veteran’s Day ceremony at Veterans Memorial Plaza. (Brian Muñoz | @BrianMMunoz)

A blow-by-blow account

As editor-in-chief, I was present for most of the discovery that weekend, but my attention was directed elsewhere late Sunday to help staff prepare other content for the Tuesday deadline. During the staff’s weekly editorial meeting on Sunday, we left the cover and a two-page spread in the week’s edition blank.

The next 48 hours were the most stressful, intense, adrenaline-inducing hours I have experienced in the newsroom. Juggling classes, checking in on the unfolding story and managing daily newsroom duties added to the pressure and uncertainty of whether the story would be ready.

Monday was a blur. Before we knew it, Tuesday came around. Designers were creating the pages and Spoerre was running in and out of the newsroom throughout the day with her head attached to her smartphone.
Keeping me informed of her progress amid the newsroom craze, she continued to work under deadline pressure, but time was flying by. Before heading to my Tuesday afternoon media ethics class, the cover and two page spread set for the story were blank.

I sat in class for the next two and a-half hours not knowing of the story’s progress.
Sprinting from class when it ended at 6 p.m., I returned to the newsroom with the final pages still blank and one hour until deadline. There was a silence in the newsroom combined with the sound of Spoerre’s fingers aggressively attacking her keyboard.

With deadline fast approaching, I made the call to push back the deadline. By 8 p.m. the story was proofread and placed on the cover and inside the paper.

Watching my staff work calmly and persistently under pressure during those final moments of sending the paper reminded me why teamwork is imperative for any job. It reminded me of the reason I love being in a newsroom — to share the stress and deadline pressure with the staff.

National attention followed

Within the first day of the story being published, it became one of the most-viewed Daily Egyptian stories published in the past several months and received nationwide attention from several media outlets. From the moment I walked into the newsroom the next morning, my office phone incessantly rang and my email inbox worked in overdrive.
Sitting at my computer sifting through emails, I caught word The Chronicle of Higher Education picked up our story and reported the findings. A day after the moving expenses story was published, the Chicago Tribune posted its own detailed account of the chancellor’s dealings based off the Daily Egyptian’s reporting.

Two days after the story was published, SIU President Randy Dunn launched ethics inquiries into the chancellor’s family hirings and discussions of hiring some of his previous coworkers and previous coworkers. Dunn said the information reported by the DE presented facts appropriate to examine, and that he first learned of some of the hiring details through the story.

The next day, the investigations into the hiring of the chancellor’s family members were passed to the state ethics office because the university did not feel as if they could ethically conduct the investigation since the SIU Board of Trustees was involved in the hiring of the chancellor.

Why report?

Reporting on controversial or potentially reputation-damaging matters can come at a cost. The DE was criticized for reporting on issues that could potentially harm the university and make prospective students second guess attending SIU.
But promoting the university is not the role of a campus newspaper. Rather, our job is to adhere to the Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics and to seek and report the truth. In doing so we are doing our jobs and acting appropriately in the interests of society.

Still, the question is valid: Why report on something that might turn potential students away from SIU? While we kept such possible consequences of these stories in mind, keeping things from the public because it may be perceived as negative to the university or area is simply unethical.

It is a journalist’s duty and responsibility to report truthfully, whether it be what is deemed a negative or positive story. Presenting facts to the public is the foundation of what journalists do.

Difficulties can arise for journalists when there is the understanding of the negative effects a story can have on someone or the community. However, by reporting the facts and shining the light on the truth, journalists have done their job as they should.

Ramifications

In early February I attended the SIU Board of Trustees meeting and saw the effects our work had on the university community. During the public comment portion of the meeting, a number of community members, faculty and students expressed their concerns and distrust in the chancellor’s ability to lead the university after the ethics inquiries were opened.

Dave Johnson, Faculty Association President, said in the meeting that students, faculty and staff had lost trust in the chancellor.

Natasha Zaretsky, an associate history professor from SIUC, spoke at the meeting and said the ethics investigations eroded the trust and faith in Montemagno’s leadership.

While it was clear prior to the meeting that many people had doubts about the chancellor and his restructuring plan, it was also clear the DE story had a profound effect on the faculty and community, giving rise to most of the public comment portion at the board meeting.

Since the publishing of the first story, dozens of letters to the editor have been submitted by faculty and alumni expressing their reaction to the news about the chancellor.

Janis Esch, a reporter for the Southern Illinoisan, asked Dunn if he was proud of the “in-depth investigative work” by the DE. She tweeted part of his response:
“The DE in particular has a long, historic record of being able to get to stories like this and go after them. … Everyone plays their role, and reporters have their jobs to do. In this case, the DE did it, they did it well, they did it with good research on their facts and now the story goes forward, and they should be able to wear that as a big point of pride and another feather in the cap for these types of stories they’ve been able to break.”

Moving expenses

The DE filed a Freedom of Information Act on Feb. 2 requesting documents related to the chancellor’s moving expenses.
The university responded to the Freedom of Information request by issuing a five-day extension. During this extension — and the day before the DE was initially supposed to be given the documents — the chancellor published a blog post detailing the situation with the moving expenses, claiming he posted it for the sake of “transparency”.

Cause and effect

Since the DE shed light on these matters, state ethics inquiries began, the chancellor reimbursed the university money and faculty and members of the SIU community have been outspoken about their distrust in the chancellor. It is clear these stories sparked outrage, distrust and frustration in our community.

It’s never easy evaluating potential damage and assessing balance in stories. And concerns about the balance of the DE’s coverage of the chancellor have been brought to me. I respond to those concerns about balance by reminding people we are ultimately doing our jobs.

I have no doubt in my mind Spoerre is asking the right questions and reaching out to all the appropriate people with the interest of being fair and balanced in her reporting.

Despite the questioning and negativity, the vast amount of the feedback has been positive. People have called and thanked the DE for reporting these stories, paper racks have been bare around campus and people are recognizing Spoerre for the quality of her reporting.

College newspapers are sometimes underestimated or undervalued because of the fact they are student staffed. However, just because we are students, balancing a full class schedule on top of the pressures of being in college does not mean we hold ourselves to lower journalistic standards. If we do not hold ourselves to the same standard as professional journalists, we are not adequately preparing ourselves for future careers in the industry.

The investigative content within these stories and the quality of reporting justifies those professional standards to which we hold ourselves.

This semester so far as editor-in-chief has tested me. But, more importantly, I’ve constantly been reminded of how important journalists are and how proud I am to be a piece of the puzzle at the DE. At the end of the day we will continue to report the facts, the truth and act as the primary watchdogs for the public.
If we don’t, who will?

 

Athena Chrysanthou is a senior from London, double majoring in news/editorial journalism and philosophy at Southern Illinois University Carbondale.  She has served as editor-in-chief at SIU’s campus newspaper, the Daily Egyptian, for two semesters. Chrysanthou graduates in May and plan to attend graduate school in London to pursue an international journalism masters degree.