Inside the Newsroom: Reporting the Morris Berger story

Lanthorn Editorial Board

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It’s been a wild week for the Lanthorn, and it’s only Wednesday. Today also happens to be Student Press Freedom Day, and as such we want to reflect and provide insight into what has been going on inside and outside of our newsroom over the past few days.

What was originally a straightforward article getting to know Grand Valley State University football’s new offensive coordinator has become an international story, attracting attention from viewers far beyond our west Michigan community.

On Thursday, Jan. 23, the Lanthorn published an interview with newly hired GVSU football offensive coordinator Berger in a Q&A format. This format is consistent with how we have introduced other key figures entering or leaving the GVSU community in the past. The last story ran in a Q&A format was president emeritus Thomas Haas’ final interview with the Lanthorn. 

We published the interview in full, including a part at the end where Coach Berger expressed his admiration for the leadership skills of Adolf Hitler, the German dictator responsible for the World War II genocide of some six million European Jews.

The story remained up in its original form until a representative from GVSU Athletics called our sports editor on Saturday and requested that Berger’s final response be removed from the online piece. 

When confronted by a university official in a position of influence, the “student” portion of “student journalist” kicked in first. In a lapse of journalistic vision, we removed the portion in question. We quickly realized that was a mistake.

We began an internal conversation about whether the final section of the interview should be reinstated. With our duty to the community in mind and journalistic ethics to guide us, we came to the decision that Berger’s comments were undeniably newsworthy to our readership, and we made the decision to revert the piece to its original state on Sunday, Jan. 26. We notified the Athletic Department of this revision immediately. 

This decision was not made lightly. We decided not to bend to institutional censorship which would have effectively cast the Lanthorn as a branch of the Athletic Department’s public relations rather than an independent outlet of student journalists.

Our decision triggered pushback. Between Saturday and Sunday, our sports editor received five phone calls from GVSU Athletics. The subject matter of the calls ranged from an appreciation of our journalistic work to an attempt to make us feel guilty for our actions.

Let this be clear: we neither feel guilt nor excessive pride at what we’ve done. We are satisfied with doing our job as journalists. The journalistic bar we cleared — after an initial lapse of judgment — is in fact very low. We chose to run a recorded, verbatim comment made by an influential member of the GVSU Athletics community whose job is to mentor young men. The further ramifications of Berger’s statement are out of our hands. 

That doesn’t mean that our role in the story is over. By Monday, local TV outlets Fox 17 and WOOD-TV 8 had picked up the story and, thanks to social media, it had spread like wildfire. Our reaction to media requests from around the nation was to stand beside our honest journalism with pride. This was never designed to be a “hit piece.” It started as a simple Q&A, and turned into an opportunity to put our education, and our principles, to the test in the face of institutional censorship. 

So, where do we go from here?

Like any other outlet, the Lanthorn will continue to cover the Berger investigation as an evolving news story. We will continue to facilitate campus conversations surrounding this situation. We will continue to stand by the quality of our work. We will continue to report and publish with deliberateness and a clear ethical perspective.

As mentioned at the start of this editorial, today, Jan. 29, is Student Press Freedom Day, which is described by the Student Press Law Center as “a national day of action when we celebrate the contributions of student journalists and highlight the need to support their independence without censorship or threat to their advisers.” Of course, we did not anticipate the Lanthorn’s most public and controversial story in years to coincide with this celebration. Regardless, we are as proud of our work as always, and we promise to continue reporting and publishing fairly, accurately, and without fear.