This study examines the concepts of perceptual bias and willingness to self-censor (WTSC) to ascertain which factors would influence college newspaper editors' comfort levels with controversial material. Data from 189 matched pairs of college newspaper editors revealed that editors underestimated advisers' comfort levels and that those erroneous estimations were predictive of the editors' comfort levels. In addition, while adviser WTSC was not predictive of editors' comfort levels on several controversial topics, editors' WTSC did predict the editors' comfort with the material.
willingness to self-sensor, self-versus-other, perceptual bias, student media, newspaper editors, newspaper advisers
College newspaper editors often square offagainst administrators, faculty members, and other students regarding what a college newspaper should and should not cover. The results of publishing material deemed controversial can be problematic to those papers.
For example, editors at the Fairfield Mirror on the campus of Fairfield University were chastised by the administration for publishing a column regarding the walk of shame, a term used to describe an early morning walk home after sex at someone else's residence. University officials said it was possible that the school would cancel the paper's contract, essentially censoring the paper through financial means.1
At the University of California, Riverside, almost twelve hundred copies of the Highlander disappeared from campus. The newspaper had reported that a student government official, who spent more than $5,000 to fly herself and an intern to a conference, was not authorized to attend the conference, nor was she authorized to make the expenditure.2
However, while some student editors are cowed by retaliatory actions, others are emboldened by them. For example, in April 2008, almost eight thousand copies of the Ball State Daily News were stolen from the racks on the Muncie, Indiana, campus. Officials at the paper speculated that the theftwas related to a story about the arrest of a women's soccer player.3 The editors at the paper reran the entire issue as an insert to the next day's paper, complete with an editorial titled, "Nice try. We're still here."
Even in the face of heavy-handed administrative efforts, some student journalists continue to publish important material that is controversial. The staffof the Northwest Trail at Northwest College in Powell, Wyoming, earned the 2010 College Press Freedom Award for pursuing controversial stories that mattered to their readers. The adviser of the paper, Ron Feemster, was fired after he encouraged students to pursue these types of stories. Even after Feemster was fired, the students continued their reporting on questionable sports recruiting practices and faculty pay equity.4
The question for this study was what makes some editors more comfortable in producing material that can stoke controversy and lead to dire consequences while other editors shy away from it. This study posits that a few key factors are likely at play when it comes to editors' comfort level: their internal fear of what might happen to them, their perception of how the media outlet's adviser might react, and the journalistic environment created by the adviser.
This study was conducted to ascertain which factors were the strongest predictors of the editors' comfort levels with controversial material. First, the study examines the issue through the lens of self-censorship. Scholars have posited that an individual's willingness to self-censor is an intrinsic trait that can be measured accurately and can adequately predict an individual's comfort level when it comes to dealing with public disapproval.5 Using this theory to guide this research, the analysis herein outlines to what degree an intrinsic self-censoring mechanism might limit an editor's comfort level with controversial material.
Second, the study assessed to what degree perceptual bias plays a role in predicting an editor's decision. …