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Texas A&M journalism programs at risk after faculty advisor punished for protecting sources

The revelation that Tarleton State University is punishing a faculty journalism advisor for helping a student reporter protect the identity of her confidential sources is one that threatens the integrity of journalism programs across the entire Texas A&M University System, of which Tarleton State is a member.

Earlier this year, Quanecia Fraser, a reporter at Tarleton State’s Texan News Service student newspaper, promised not to reveal the identities of several sources accusing a prominent professor of inappropriate behavior. All told, Fraser documented allegations from eight women — some of whom requested anonymity — who accused associate history professor Michael Landis of inappropriate behavior or sexual harassment.

Among those allegations were that Landis routinely asked female students out for drinks, touched at least one inappropriately in class, and invited another over to his house for “dinner, drinks & movies” while his wife was away. During a subsequent university investigation, Landis admitted that he shared a hotel room with a student.

The university determined Landis’ behavior was “inappropriate,” although not rising to the level of sexual harassment, and a high-level administrator recommended Landis be fired.

But instead of praising the student paper’s work in uncovering the allegations, Tarleton State punished its faculty advisor, Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter and associate journalism professor Dan Malone, for violating the school’s policy on Title IX. Tarleton State said Malone was required by university policy to immediately report the names of Fraser’s confidential sources to school administrators so Tarleton State could investigate the allegations.

“The university cannot investigate what it does not know,” the school wrote to Malone in a formal, written reprimand. “[Y]ou have the duty to report and to ensure we are providing a safe and discrimination free environment for our students and employees.”

According to the reprimand, Malone still faces additional punishment, including termination, for “any further violation of policy and regulation.”

Because the use of confidential sources is one of a reporter’s most important tools, Malone’s choice is an impossible one for any journalist worth their salt.

Guidelines on the use of confidential sources from journalism advocacy organizations like the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and the Radio Television Digital News Association acknowledge the value in using anonymous sources. In cases where the public has an overwhelming need for information, a journalist must carefully weigh that need against the public’s interest in getting the information with a source’s name attached to it.

When multiple students accuse a professor at a public university of sexual harassment, for example, both the risk to student-sources in having their identities revealed and the public’s need for information are high. It’s a situation in which most journalists would strongly consider the careful use of anonymous sourcing.

Dan Malone tells FIRE such policies on using confidential or vulnerable sources were in effect in the newsrooms he worked in for decades before heading to Tarleton State to teach. (Malone shared the Pulitzer Prize for Investigative Reporting in 1992 for his work at the Dallas Morning News uncovering police misconduct.)

“I trusted my editors and colleagues to protect my sources, [and] they did,” Malone said.

Now as a journalism professor, he feels an obligation to pass on that knowledge to students.

“Student newsroom consultations between advisor or faculty member and student journalist,” he noted, “are as valuable as the conversations I had with my editors about whether to use the information from the source or not.”

But Tarleton State’s demand that its journalist-employees break trust with their sources, or don’t promise anonymity at all, jeopardizes their ability to do the most basic aspects of their jobs. It also sets up untenable conflicts of interest for faculty and for student journalists who also happen to be employees: Journalism faculty, it seems, now have to choose between losing their university jobs and betraying the student reporters they advise by revealing source identities; student reporters must forgo reporting stories altogether — even ones with overwhelming public benefit — if they know they will face professional or legal repercussions for outing their sources.  

Yet, the Texas A&M System fails to acknowledge that it is forcing these journalists to make an impossible choice. On the issue of whether Tarleton State considers advisors like Malone journalists or employees first, Texas A&M System spokesperson Laylan Copelin didn’t mince words.

“See where Dan gets paid,” Copelin told The Texas Monitor. “He’s an employee.”

Copelin, who, FIRE has learned, was a journalist himself at Texas’ Austin American-Statesman for more than thirty years, didn’t respond to FIRE’s request for further comment on how he could reconcile his statement with his extensive knowledge of the journalism industry’s routine reliance on confidential sourcing.

But on that issue, perhaps we should take Copelin’s advice and look at his paycheck. Both his salary and Malone’s are public record.

Malone, the journalism advisor, makes just over $57,000 a year.

Copelin, the administrator, makes $288,000.

“We both work for the Texas A&M System,” Malone said, acknowledging both Copelin’s comment and his salary. “Not that my stance on this issue would change if I made five times more than he does.”

“But he brought the paycheck issue to the discussion.”

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