Journalistic Malpractice and BYU-Idaho

First the journalistic malpractice, then BYU-Idaho.

Not long ago the Salt Lake Tribune ran a headline so egregiously inaccurate that it constitutes journalistic malpractice: “As a new Women of Color club provides a ‘sanctuary’ at Brigham Young University in Provo, its Idaho campus has shut down such groups.” The only logical interpretation of the headline is that there were clubs providing sanctuary for women of color at BYU-Idaho, but BYU-Idaho has shut them down.

This is simply untrue. There never have been such clubs at BYU-Idaho. The university’s student cultural associations were for men and women of all backgrounds (and not, as the article incorrectly states, for students of a particular heritage) who were interested in international cultures. One may well believe that BYU-Idaho should offer clubs for women of color, but that such clubs were targeted for closing is a figment of the headline writer’s imagination. The headline recklessly suggests racist and sexist intent that the following article does not substantiate. This is the type of lazy headline writing that breeds mistrust of serious media outlets. For people concerned about racism, sexism, and the erosion of trust in media, news stories that promise but don’t deliver do a real disservice.

Another level of journalistic malpractice is that the article entirely misses the actual story.

* * *

When I taught at BYU-Idaho, I helped students organize an academic society, and then, when the students determined that a cultural association was a better fit for their goals, they reformed as one of those. The difference between the two, as far as I could tell, was that academic societies needed a faculty advisor, while cultural associations didn’t, and academic societies were supposed to have a narrower academic or career focus, and there were some restrictions on approved activities. As a language teacher, I appreciated how having a cultural association made it easy for my students to hold fun, low-stress cultural activities outside of class, and especially how the university made it easy it to schedule facilities and hold events. If I were still teaching there, I would be highly disturbed to lose that. A language club is one of the first things you try to set up alongside a language program, and at BYU-Idaho it was working quite well. For languages not represented in the curriculum, the cultural associations were the only way for international students, returned missionaries, and other interested students to maintain cultural engagement on even a basic level in some official way on campus. And for communication, publicity, organizing, and other fundamental concerns, having an official campus identity is absolutely essential.

But whether what BYU-Idaho has done is trivial or awful depends on answers to questions that the Tribune article never asks. Questions like:

  • The university’s announcement has now disappeared; is the university reconsidering its decision?
  • The university’s announcement mentioned a transition to academic societies. The distinction between cultural associations and academic societies was in fact not entirely clear, so that turning two overlapping systems into one might make sense; will the scope of academic societies be broadened? What types of activities will no longer be available to students?
  • When Ricks College became BYU-Idaho, the loss of intercollegiate athletics was justified by the numerous opportunities for meaningful student participation in athletic, cultural, and volunteer activities; does the closing of cultural associations represent a step back from a commitment to what has been a vibrant on-campus life?
  • One of the few things accreditation visits have cautioned BYU-Idaho about is a lack of meaningful faculty input on administrative decisions; were faculty from relevant academic departments consulted on this decision?
  • Is closing the cultural associations part of the university’s efforts to “strategically reduce and simplify campus programs,” similar to closing the Badger Creek outdoor facility? BYU-Idaho is already one of the most efficient, least expensive residential colleges in the United States, and it receives a fraction of the resources per student that the Provo campus receives; isn’t trying to cut costs at BYU-Idaho like trying to squeeze blood from a stone?
  • Since the shift to BYU-Idaho, foreign languages have lost any place in the core curriculum, there are fewer continuing faculty in languages now despite a massive influx of students since then, language programs have been phased out without new ones taking their place, and it has become harder for interested students to fit language courses into highly regimented major plans. Although the university has students as internationally-minded as BYU-Provo, and the same business environment as Boise, why has BYU-Idaho resisted building on the incredibly broad linguistic talents of its student body in a way similar to the Provo campus?
  • The university’s spokesman contrasts cultural associations with career-focused networking and academic goals, as if cultural and career interests were opposites. Does this reflect a narrow view of education and even of career preparation for students, many of whose academic programs and career goals include professional engagement with other cultures?

There might be a story here, an interesting and important story, if only there were someone at the Tribune who knew the right questions to ask.

9 comments for “Journalistic Malpractice and BYU-Idaho

  1. You bring up legitimate questions that any journalistic group should be trying to answer. It would be easy to chalk up such bias to a politically liberal POV, but that’s too easy. It’s about the true currency of the information age: attention.

    To be fair, journalism, especially in the U.S., has almost always been about reader attention. When your business model is based on advertising, attention is almost like money in importance and used to be more trouble to measure.

    Ironically, the advance in information technology made attention actually measurable almost at the same time it made information ubiquitous, so an unintended consequence was sheer volumes of information available with no effective editors or vetting. Noisy is the internet now.

    Humans are still learning that every genie we release from a bottle has its own demands and consequences. This may be why the Lord has warned us about putting our trust in such genies, or “the arm of flesh.”

  2. This article should not come as a surprise seeing it comes from a Godbeite anti-Mormon source. After all there has to be opposition in all things.

  3. I think I can answer some of your questions being currently an employee of BYUI.
    1. No. But the university is sensitive to bad press and so may hide announcements. The new policy is still in place.
    2. Maybe. And it’s unclear. Over time the university has exerted more and more direct control over student societies. I am not sure why.
    3. In my opinion, yes.
    4. I don’t know for sure but I doubt it. It’s just too easy to make changes without that input and getting that input always slows things down.
    5. Yes and yes
    6. I don’t know.
    7. Probably. There is currently a huge push to get students jobs upon graduation or soon thereafter. I suppose there are those on campus who see anything non academic and not directly tied to that effort as frivolous. Whatever the truth may be.

    I also agree that the real story was in some ways more interesting than the reported headline though a bit less dramatic.

  4. Jonathan, solid post. Thank you for taking the time. Your list of questions for BYI are particularly worthwhile.

    You note the mistrust of media that this sort of malpractice (misleading sensationalism) breeds. It’s worth noting that it also breeds unjustified and unfair mistrust/skepticism/ill-will toward institutions like BYU-I. This is unfair both to those of us that love or feel invested in these institutions as well as those who are genuinely interested in their reform (which two groups share some overlap).

  5. I think a big problem with media is that people recognize what is left out of discussions. They notice that perhaps only people with certain views are interviewed to give responses to some big event. They notice that things are left out. Even though most news doesn’t do this, it happens enough and betrays trust.

  6. I’m not sure where to begin here…

    First the SL Tribune does the best religion writing and reporting in the intermountain west. Try spending 15 to 30 minutes listening to their “Mormon Land” podcast. I find it to be balanced, and even faith-promoting. The Deseret News either cannot or will not do such things. They are not able to provide balanced reporting of our LDS church. The SL Tribune does not get everything right, but it gets many things right, and it offers thorough stories that the DN either omits entirely, or spends a paragraph on, or reports on 4 weeks after the events. I read the DN daily and the SL Trib and find the SL Trib, over all, to be far more credible in regards to what is really happening in terms of “The Church.”

    Second: The first half of the article was highly positive, reporting on the refuge that students at BYU Provo have found in certain newly formed groups. It reflected the church and BYU Provo in a favorable and generous light.

    Third: BYU Idaho has clearly botched the roll-out of their new policy. Sadly, when such things happens we may feel that it reflects on the Church, when in fact it reflects only on the BYU-I administration. Consider this quote from the article regarding a woman who was highly involved in one of the cultural associations:

    “Last fall, Tedford, who had served as the manager of the Latin American cultural association, was poised to become a coordinator for the groups. So when she found out on Facebook about BYU-Idaho’s decision to shut down the associations, she was “shocked.”
    The post announcing the change was on the Facebook page for the cultural associations, which has since been deleted.”

    Don’t you think that basic decency would require that BYU-I would have possibly consulted such people as Tedford (more than a mere participant but a manager of such groups) about this decision? Perhaps, if she understood the policy change, she would become a cheerleader for the change. But no, she couldn’t be consulted. She is non-faculty, and a woman, and a minority. Suddenly the administration looks clumsy and oafish. Even if they didn’t consult her prior to the change, she and others like her should have been notified of the change so that they wouldn’t be blind-sided by it. She found out on Facebook?

    From my perspective it looks like the SL Trib did not do a thorough and good job reporting on this topic. However, a good measure of the blame goes to the administration of BYU-I which appears to be treating this change in a heavy-handed, top-down, we-know-what-we-are-doing fashion, leaving behind a trail of hurt feelings and misunderstanding. In some ways, they bear the responsibility of the botched reporting because they didn’t handle the change well. Wasn’t it Elder Packer who said that information should be related not only so that people can understand, but also so that they can’t misunderstand?

  7. I followed this closely as it was happening. I didn’t read the SLTrib article, but I read the posts that were going up on Facebook at BYU-I at the time. People, and especially minorities at BYU, were in shock. BYU-I failed to provide any kind of adequate excuse for the change, and of course their PR on this was an utter failure.

    Meanwhile, I’m worried that minority students there no longer have the support they need. I work with a lot of minority students who attend BYU-I and it’s not an easy place for most of them to be.

  8. James Ure has a new book out about the Church and the SL Tribune. Some of the key players at BYU-I in the last 15 years figure prominently in the book.

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