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Baumgarten: Journalists shouldn’t have to live in fear

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opinion Dickinson, 58602
The Dickinson Press
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Dickinson North Dakota 1815 1st Street West 58602

No one — no matter how old or young — should be afraid to say or write the truth.

That is something I was always taught while attending Jamestown College, now known as the University of Jamestown. I learned that sitting in the basement of Raugust Library — the center of the campus — writing news and editorials for the college’s student-run newspaper, The Collegian.

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In the three years I was there, I felt that we put out a high-quality newspaper. My team sat at the round table brainstorming ideas for stories that were important to students. I’m not just talking about the football team having a great season, which is very important. We were out to tell the truth and make changes.

There were two subjects that have stuck in my mind: the Pepsi problem and Tk20 incident.

One of my first stories I wrote was on how the Pepsi company had a contract to provide product to the school. The old machines pushed out soda that had expired months earlier. Some of the soda had leaked open or tasted flat. There were even times when you pressed the Diet Pepsi button only to get bottled tea. And that’s if you were lucky enough to get anything. Putting money in the vending machines was like playing a slot machine.

So I wrote an article about it. A few weeks later, I saw Pepsi employees moving newer machines into the buildings. When I asked what was going on, one said someone had written a story about Pepsi so they were bringing refurbished machines. I couldn’t help but smile.

There is also a program the college implements called “Journey to Success.” The program works with freshman students to make that big transition from high school to college and learn about themselves so they may choose the best path for their future. Sounds great, right?

There was a problem. The “Journey” required that students buy a program called Tk20. It allowed students to submit homework assignments to teachers. It was expected to make things easier for online work and assessment.

But, like most programs, there were bugs. Students found it was hard to navigate. It was confusing and frustrating. Children stayed up all night long trying to figure it out. And to top it off — it cost money.

At the time, Jamestown College had a free online system to submit homework. So, as a

journalist, I asked the question: “Why pay money for a program that didn’t seem to work?”

It all ended with an editorial that some professors didn’t like, especially since I was a peer leader for the program. After several heated discussions with the leaders of the program, I resigned from the Journey program.

We did not write that column because we wanted to make the college look bad. We wrote it because our editorial board wanted to see some type of change. We wanted officials to know the program didn’t work and was literally causing students more stress than they needed. I talked with President Robert Badal, who is the publisher of The Collegian. I remember walking away with the notion that he was behind me. I know I was right to write that editorial, even if some did not like what I wrote.

Apparently, students, teachers and the North Dakota Professional Communicators thought so, too. I took second place for best editorial in the NDPC’s contest, but that is neither here nor there. I wanted to show that, even though I did an unpopular thing with some professors, I was not afraid to write about something I felt needed attention. The Collegian is the voice of the campus, and I hope that editorial rang loud enough.

Now the students at University of Jamestown are bringing forth legislation called The New Voices Act. It would guarantee their rights to publish articles, even the negative ones, without fear of being reprimanded.

I never felt that I couldn’t write the truth at Jamestown College, even when several people didn’t like it. And no one should feel that fear. There are plenty of colleges that censor content in the paper because it may damage their reputation. And even if they don’t, some students are afraid they cannot write the truth for fear of retaliation.

Yes, there will be consequences, as with anything someone does. Students may have to deal with nasty looks from friends writing about them, or have a rough time in class after quoting a teacher saying something they shouldn’t have. But that is a process of journalism. A reporter has to make decisions what issues need to be addressed and what battles are not worth fighting.

With that said, this is about journalistic integrity.

The First Amendment is supposed to guarantee our right to press and free speech. College students and papers should not be treated differently. If this act gets rid of the fear of being punished for writing the truth, makes them feel like they can be true journalists, then it is worth passing.

Baumgarten is the assistant editor of The Dickinson Press. Email her at abaumgarten@thedickinsonpress.com and read her blog at baumsaway.areavoices.com.

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April Baumgarten
April Baumgarten joined the Grand Forks Herald May 19, 2015, as the news editor. She works with a team of talented journalists and editors, who strive to give the Grand Forks area the quality news readers deserve to know. Baumgarten grew up on a ranch 10 miles southeast of Belfield, where her family continues to raise registered Hereford cattle. She double majored in communications and history/political science at Jamestown (N.D.) College, now known as University of Jamestown. During her time at the college,  she worked as a reporter and editor-in-chief for the university's newspaper, The Collegian. Baumgarten previously worked for The Dickinson Press as the Dickinson city government and energy reporter in 2011 before becoming the editor of the Hazen Star and Center Republican. She then returned to The Press as a news editor, where she helped lead an award-winning newsroom in recording the historical oil boom.   
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