Using a favorite quotation from an essay or book you have read in the last three years as a starting point, tell us about an event or experience that helped you define one of your values or changed how you approach the world. Please write the quotation, title and author at the beginning of your essay.
“There comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular, but he must take it because conscience tells him it is right.”
Martin Luther King Jr., A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches
The phones rang off the hook, and the emails flooded our inboxes for two hot summer days. The requests for interviews from the Newton Tab paper, the Wicked Local Newspaper, and the Boston Globe kept coming, and the polite requests quickly turned into pleas – a quick comment was all they wanted.
The local newspapers were hoping to interview the students who had exposed the latest scandal in town: the plagiarized commencement speech given by the school’s superintendent.
One of our newspaper’s staff members had noticed the striking similarities between a recent speech given by the state governor and the one we heard at graduation. He and another student then compiled a list of parallel passages from each speech and came to me with the hope of releasing the story.
I held in my hands the power to give the final ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to publishing the news. Moreover, we, as a staff, held in our hands the power to singlehandedly ruin the superintendent’s 20-year-long career in education – one that had been marked with extraordinary leadership and noteworthy improvements in our school system.
Although it was clear that it would be ethically wrong to withhold and, thereby, cover up the facts that the two students had gathered, I nevertheless felt conflicted about permitting the publication. As our paper comes out only during the school year, this news would require an online edition in which it would be the sole story published; would it be fair to put the superintendent in the spotlight like that? Was there a less public way of releasing this information to avoid the potential large-scale ramifications?
Would the final ‘yes’ be right?
We struggled with these questions for what seemed like an eternal 24 hours, many of which I spent tossing and turning on the hard, plastic mattress of my summer camp dorm room. The longer I spent contemplating these concerns, though, the greater conviction I felt about the need to give the green light. If the superintendent were to face drastic consequences, it would not be because we had the integrity to share the facts with the public. It would be because he – the head of a school system that teaches students to value academic honesty – had plagiarized the governor’s speech. By withholding the information due to concern about the reputation of an individual, I would have failed my responsibilities as the leader of the newspaper.
Publishing the story itself was a test of morality, but our approach became a test of my own journalistic integrity. Because we were the only ones in the school – and the district for that matter – that were aware of the circumstances, we also held in our hands the power to present the story in any way we wanted; the public would view our story as the truth. A few staff members suggested we depict the superintendent in a far more negative light while we had the chance. It seemed, however, ironically hypocritical to skew a story that highlighted the superintendent’s dishonesty.
Thus, to some of the staff members’ disappointment, I insisted that they decline those phone calls and email interview requests – not because I wanted to crush their dreams of momentary stardom, but because the local papers were directing their attention to our paper’s feat itself, rather than the question of the superintendent’s integrity. To allow other news sources to make our staff members a group of heroes and to divert the public from the focus of the issue was to detract from my original intentions of releasing the story: unveiling the truth and nothing but the truth.