The need for a campus conscience

Author: Matt Storin ’64

The last week of October 2010 was a sad and bleak time on the Notre Dame campus. Declan Sullivan, a junior from Fisher Hall, had been killed in a freak wind accident while videotaping a football practice from a hydraulic lift 40 feet in the air. For the student journalists of The Observer this was not just a big story. It was an emotional trauma. Declan had been a popular contributor to the paper’s Scene pages. He was a colleague.

Laura McCrystal ’11 remembers leaving the basement Observer office in South Dining Hall for only about two hours the next two days as she and Sarah Mervosh ’12 covered the story. It’s what reporters and editors do, even when they are college students and have just lost a friend.

Though impressive, there was an element of that Observer coverage that disturbed this old newspaperman. Sullivan had posted some comments on Twitter before and after he went up in the tower. One tweet — “Gusts of wind up to 60mph well today will be fun at work . . . I guess I’ve lived long enough” — was especially significant in retrospect. The question of pre-practice weather conditions was critical in the post-tragedy investigations. But Sullivan’s social-media posts were not reported in The Observer that week even as they were reported widely elsewhere.

I understood the emotions involved, but I found it a good teaching moment and engaged some of the Observer editors on the topic in one of my journalism classes that week. Today, McCrystal is a reporter at The Philadelphia Inquirer and Mervosh is a reporter at The Dallas Morning News. My hunch is that they’ve faced similar tough decisions about whether to include sensitive material in their stories.

“Looking back, I’m certain we could have done a better job with the coverage, as we were only students,” McCrystal wrote in a recent email about the Sullivan tragedy. “But it taught me the reality of dropping everything (even sleep and food) for breaking news, a sense of the responsibility journalists have to jump into action and get things right as big news is breaking and rumors are swirling, and the emotional toll that covering tragic stories can have on reporters. Even today when I cover big news or tragedies, I think back to Declan’s death.”

I believe rigorous student journalism is not only important as a learning experience but also important for the larger Notre Dame community. The Observer, which commemorated its 50th anniversary in November, has always been an independent publication with no faculty advisers or close oversight by the administration. All institutions need a watchdog, or a conscience, or just outside opinions. The press, for all its faults, fills those roles in a free society.

In recent years, I’ve detected a trend toward more docile coverage by The Observer. Friends in journalism tell me it’s also happening on other campuses. One theory holds that this is a product of the issues regarding offensive speech on campuses generally, which might translate into trying not to offend anyone with reporting. For example, after the arrests of ND football team members last summer, The Observer, despite potential access to student sources, stuck by and large to official statements, while the South Bend Tribune offered new information.

This has not always been the case at Notre Dame during the tenures of some highly motivated editors such as Kelley Tuthill ’92, Claire Heininger ’06 and Maddie Hanna ’08. They were passionate about the watchdog functions so important to journalism, and their staffs were aggressive in taking on University policies and chasing breaking news.

Even allowing for legitimate privacy concerns involving students, I think Notre Dame needs more of that. Any institution does. One trend that has not changed is the post-graduate success of Notre Dame journalists. Currently, the most celebrated is Robert Costa ’08, a leading political reporter at The Washington Post and frequent guest on Meet the Press and other news shows. During the 2016 presidential primaries, I counted a half-dozen other alums covering campaigns: Tuthill for WCVB-TV in Boston, Megan Doyle ’13 for the Concord Monitor in New Hampshire, Hanna and McCrystal for The Philadelphia Inquirer, and Karen Langley ’08 for the Post-Gazette in Pittsburgh. And I probably missed some.

There also is impressive representation from Notre Dame’s Gallivan Program in Journalism, Ethics and Democracy in sports reporting. Bill Brink ’10 covers the Pittsburgh Pirates and Sam Werner ’11 the Penguins for the Post-Gazette, Pat Leonard ’06 follows the NFL Giants for the Daily News in New York, and Chris Hine ’09 has the Blackhawks beat for the Chicago Tribune. And numerous alums stick around South Bend to write for the publications and websites that follow Irish football.

In general, alums are sprinkled throughout journalism nationwide. The Gallivan Program finances internships at a half-dozen newspapers that often lead to full-time jobs. As a result of that program, three Gallivan graduates are currently on the staff of the Post-Gazette. Professor Robert Schmuhl ’70, who stepped down last year as director, founded the Gallivan Program in 1997. Unlike many universities, Notre Dame made a conscious decision, advanced by Schmuhl, that there should not be a journalism major, the underlying philosophy being that students should get a grounding in the craft while absorbing as much of a liberal education as possible. For example, McCrystal majored in American Studies and French, and Hanna was also a French major.

You are unlikely to learn French as a journalism major, but someday as a reporter you might use it. Of course journalism is an uncertain path for graduating students today. Hanna says, “I don't know whether I'd still be in this job if I didn't continue to carry the idealism and sense of responsibility I felt as a student journalist.”

Matt Storin is a former editor of The Boston Globe who later served in the administration and faculty at Notre Dame until retiring in 2014.