Fletcher: Truth in Experience

by Emily Fletcher | 10/16/14 10:10pm

When I was asked to recount my experience editing and publishing “Telling the Truth” (Jan. 25, 2012), the opinion column that sparked much of the current discussion about hazing and the value of Dartmouth’s Greek system, I was lukewarm about the idea. The column, by Andrew Lohse ’12, was one of the most important pieces published during my tenure as the 2012 editor-in-chief of The Dartmouth, but I had largely put my role in editing the piece behind me, and I prefer to focus on the conversations that have taken place since.

I am proud of how my team handled the column a few short weeks into our leadership of the paper, but the experience was disillusioning. I was notorious on our editorial board for labeling student behavior and administrative action as “misguided,” because it reflected my belief that most of the stakeholders who disagree about what is best for the College are genuinely advocating for what they believe is in the community’s best interest. In this case, however, the process of editing the column and its aftermath brought me head-to-head with people whose manipulative behavior I found incredibly frustrating.

Lohse was a regular columnist with whom I had little previous interaction when I took over as editor, and he submitted the first draft of his Jan. 25 column to our opinion editors, as was the usual process. Our standard protocol was to have one of the opinion editors work with a columnist to edit a piece before sending it to the executive editor. I was the last to see opinion columns and rarely worked directly with columnists to make content changes.

When the opinion editors received Lohse’s column, they immediately knew it would require a higher level of editorial oversight. The column made bold claims about the extent and severity of hazing in his fraternity — the kind that would make waves if true but open the paper up to lawsuits if false.

The executive editor overseeing the opinion editors recused himself from editing the column because he was a member of Sigma Alpha Epsilon, the fraternity against which Lohse leveled hazing accusations. I immediately went into business mode, realizing that the column required extensive fact-checking and editing before we could publish it, and I worked directly with Lohse to confirm his story.

My goal was to confirm with as much certainty as possible that his column was true to his experience. It was not a news piece, and I would never be able to confirm with 100-percent certainty that he truly felt the distress he claimed. I did, however, call both student and alumni members of SAE to ask if they had ever experienced or witnessed the alleged abuses outlined in Lohse’s column, such as being forced to chug vinegar and eat an omelet made of vomit. Lohse also provided email correspondence between himself and several administrators to prove the veracity of some of his other allegations.

The members I spoke with confirmed that Lohse’s allegations were either true to their experience or highly plausible based on their experience with and knowledge of fraternity rituals. Lohse and I went back and forth for hours about the specific wording of his most explicit sentences, and he admitted that some of the things he said he had experienced were things he had not actually witnessed but heard about from other members. Many of my edits focused on precision around this language, and I held my ground that only those events I could get confirmation occurred could be included.

The editing process was lengthy, and we decided to report on the allegations in the news section the same day we published the column. After countless conversations with Lohse, other fraternity members, administrators (because Lohse had made serious allegations about administrative inaction), professional journalists, lawyers, former editors and other members of my team, we were ready to publish the column on Jan. 25.

Whistleblowers are rarely uncomplicated individuals. They often have ulterior motives, unsavory histories and inherent biases that can make them unreliable. In this case, Lohse “leaked” his own column to another publication — a publication that then attacked the due diligence we had taken to fact-check and edit the column. We still published the column the next day, and we followed up with continued coverage of hazing at the College. Lohse lied consistently and repeatedly about sending the unedited version of his column to another publication, and soon, he stopped writing for the paper.

In the aftermath, I continued to encounter manipulative people who either disagreed with how my team handled the initial column or wanted to influence future coverage. The Rolling Stone reporter with whom Lohse worked on a later article tried to bully me into providing the names of sources I had used to fact check the column. A writer posted a picture of me on his blog and accused me of both underage drinking and editorial bias. Though I woke up most mornings wondering what absurd thing would happen next, I remained positive about the value of the work my team was doing.

Two-and-a-half years later, I appreciate the scrutiny Lohse’s column brought to the Greek system, and I am proud that content published under my direction spurred conversations that continue to take place today. As an editor, I believe my team and I handled the column with professionalism and objectivity.

I still believe that most people who enter the discourse about student life issues and Dartmouth’s future do so because they care deeply about the institution. Conversations must remain rooted in mutual respect and a sense of a common purpose, and I hope current and future students continue to feel comfortable telling the hard truths.

Emily Fletcher '13 is a former member of The Dartmouth senior staff.

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