Mandatory Mishap: Journalists at UW’s student newspaper call for protecting sources and reporters in Wyoming

By on December 13, 2017

 

A stack of Branding Iron newspapers sits on a table. The editors of UW’s student newspaper are calling for protection for journalists in the state of Wyoming. (Photo by Seth Haack)

When it comes to protecting journalists and their sources, there are virtually no laws in place in Wyoming to protect reporters — student or otherwise.

The staff at the University of Wyoming’s Branding Iron student newspaper learned that lesson the hard way recently when they were told they must divulge the identity of an unnamed source used in a story about campus sexual assault by university administration.

The article, published in the Nov. 3 issue of the paper, reported on an increase of alleged sexual assaults on campus. The reporter used an unnamed source in the story in regard to a series of alleged sexual assaults against students by a resident assistant in one of UW’s dorms.

“The story was about sexual assault increases on campus — we do reference an allegation that an RA was assaulting girls in the dorms,” Branding Iron Editor Taylor Hannon said. “Our source wasn’t comfortable coming forward with it and we noted in the story that no reports [regarding the RA allegations] were found for November.”

Hannon and her staff thought they’d covered their bases. Shortly after the article was published, Branding Iron reporter Destiny Irwin received a phone call from an officer from the University of Wyoming Police Department asking her to come down to the police station to talk. Things went downhill from there.

“At first, UWPD contacted the staff writer who wrote it in an email and asked them to come down to the police department to talk,” Hannon said.

The officer asked the reporter, a first-year international student, to name the anonymous sources used in the sexual assault article, Hannon said. Irwin was told that the university considered student employees to be mandatory reporters, meaning she was mandated to give the name of her source.

“They asked where the story had been heard of,” Hannon said. “The detective continued to call the staff writer on her personal cell phone somewhere between five to seven times and asked for the name and information of the girl who the information came from.”

The reporter had originally heard a group of students in one of her classes talking about the alleged assaults, Hannon said, and the reporter’s source was unnamed in the article for a reason.

UW Interim Dean of Students Nycole Courtney upped the ante following the UWPD inquiry and emailed the Branding Iron advisor Cary Berry-Smith to say student journalists were required to reveal the sources of their information because they were technically employees.

The situation here is two-fold: As is the case at other schools, employees at the University of Wyoming are for the most part mandatory reporters, meaning that they have a legal requirement to report observed or suspected abuse or neglect.

That usually doesn’t apply to student journalists, but that’s been the status quo at UW for as long as Hannon’s been there.

“It’s mandatory for us to take duty to report training after 90 days of being hired,” Hannon said.

The second issue is that most states have “shield laws” — or, in layman’s terms, laws that protect a journalist from being forced to name their sources in civil cases — but Wyoming has no such laws, nor is there judicial precedent in place to protect reporters and sources.

What that meant for Irwin, Hannon and the Branding Iron staff was that they were at the mercy — or perhaps demands — of UWPD and the university administration. Irwin, fearing potential repercussions for withholding her source’s name, eventually gave the information to UWPD.

Hannon is now asking media outlets to help fight for shield laws to be put in place for reporters in Wyoming.

“The overall arching angle is that there are no protections for journalists in Wyoming, and the best thing to be would to have shield laws across the state,” Hannon said.

For Hannon, changing the policies at UW is a good start, but it’s not quite enough.

“It’s an issue that has definitely been affecting all journalists in the state and we can make it change,” Hannon said. PJH


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