Column | Feb. 2

Fighting SPIN: An introduction to the 138th managing board

There is a peculiar and obscure group on campus, even though, at around 200 members, it is almost as large as the full staff of The Daily Princetonian. The group is run by the Office of Communications — the University’s central public relations office — and is aptly called SPIN. It seeks to brings together “a broad range of communicators … to discuss communication strategies,” according to a report filed late last year to the Priorities Committee.  They even have monthly meetings and subgroups, cleverly called SPINoffs. Their goal, as well as the purpose of spinning news on this campus, was summarized in a 2010 blog post by the Office of Athletic Communications. Spin means “to be as positive as possible about your own school,” the blog read.

In general, SPIN members are largely responsible for officially communicating to the world what is going on at Princeton. At the ‘Prince,’ however, we pride ourselves at deconstructing spin — both uppercase and lowercase.

Today’s issue marks the beginning of the 138th Managing Board of The Daily Princetonian. Our commitment is simple: we want to raise the quality of the journalism we put out every day, across every section of this newspaper. Now more than ever, the University community needs an independent news organization to uncover the uncomfortable truths that are sometimes cleverly spun or often ignored in official releases. This year, we will be more aggressive than ever at uncovering the news, at fighting spin, while providing more informed commentary through our Opinion section.

But taking an aggressive stance also means having to look ourselves in the mirror. News organizations seek to expose all sorts of things about all sorts of people in the name of “public interest.” But, who holds news organizations accountable? Their readers, of course. If we demand transparency, then we must also be transparent to our readers in return.

In this spirit, the ‘Prince’ is publishing its internal code of ethics online, a set of guidelines that is mandatory reading for all our staff members and details the standards that we seek to uphold, as well as the regulations we have in place.

We acknowledge that student newspapers face fundamentally different challenges than professional publications. We are prone to conflicts of interest. Our community is small and reporters maintain a dual identity as journalists and full-time students. Publishing our code of ethics, however, will allow the reader a unique window into our journalistic practices. We feel that this will allow our readers to better understand our stories and to be able to call us out when they feel we have acted unfairly.

Our goal is transparency. Although we generally don’t face any direct competition — the ‘Prince’ is the only daily newspaper in town and the only independent news source on campus — our biggest competitor is not in the news industry: it’s in public relations. It’s what my predecessor, Luc Cohen ’14, called “propaganda” in his farewell column a few weeks ago. Our competition is carefully-planned, stealthy communications strategies meant to look, read and feel like news.  For example, Princeton calls its press releases, “news releases.” Even searches on Google News will often lead to links to the University website, even though these hits are anything but news. In such conditions, news organizations like the ‘Prince’ must aggressively rethink the way they approach the news to make sure we maintain the upper hand against those who are out there to defend an agenda.

Take the recently-released 2015 University budget, for example. The official announcement highlighted an increase in financial aid and ingeniously spun a 4.1 percent tuition hike as its opposite. On average, the release said, students are now paying less than 10 years ago (what the Office of Communications called “net cost”). However, the release all but ignored the fact that almost half of the student body (40 percent) will be negatively affected by the increase. In addition, deficits and lower endowment returns forecast for the next six years went almost unmentioned, painted as an afterthought in the last lines of the release.

The University’s SPIN group is almost as large as our staff, and it will only get bigger. Just last month, the Board of Trustees approved the hire of a new staff member for the Office of Communications, considering this effort as one of a handful of “high-priority needs.” The mission of the University’s public relations efforts, as stated on its website, is to protect and promote “Princeton University’s reputation for excellence.” In the memo requesting the new hire, the same office argued that without the position it would risk a “diminished capacity to shape favorable perceptions of the University and to motivate supporters of the University to speak out on its behalf.”

At the ‘Prince’ we are not here to protect anybody’s reputation nor to shape perceptions, but to give the readers the information they ought to know. In order to do so, we want to ensure that we report accurately, independently and with integrity. If we ever fail you, I urge you to get in touch with me.

Marcelo Rochabrun, a history major from Lima, Peru, is the incoming Editor-in-Chief of The Daily Princetonian. He can be reached at mrochabr@princeton.edu.

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