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Muckraking: Still needed on Elon's campus

by Robert Wohner,

Ida Tarbell. Upton Sinclair. Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein. For journalists, their legacy needs no explanation: they are muckrakers.

Theodore Roosevelt, who coined the term, wrote, "There should be relentless exposure of and attack upon every evil man whether politician or business man, every evil practice, whether in politics, in business or in social life."

And as any media history class will explain, a media outlet's deciding decision to highlight the failures, successes and progress of government is not without its price. But historically, their priority was to inform, regardless of risks.

We at Elon can learn from this example. Elon's news media, which consist of Phoenix 14 and The Pendulum, must transform itself from an award-winning extracurricular activity and become watchdog organizations for students, particularly in their relationship with the Student Government Association and the Student Union Board.

As of now, this role of student media has been largely nonexistent. As an organization, outside of reviews or columns like this, The Pendulum strives for objectivity. But they miss the mark, sometimes in shocking ways.

Last week, The Pendulum featured the bold headline "Mantra of betterment: At cusp of being national university, Elon looks to strategic plan to become household name." News Editor Jack Dodson's article was well-researched and comprehensive in exploring how Elon continues to emerge as a national presence. But for one week, The Pendulum transformed itself from a student run newspaper into a student-run division of Elon public relations.
From the majestic photos of Lambert, athletic director Dave Blank and others, to its Shakespearian-caliber headline, the article is a microcosm of what The Pendulum often becomes, a visually beautiful, well-written publication reiterating Elon's promotional talking points. That's not good enough.

These organizations regularly update students on Elon administration activities. That's important. But covering stories on Elon's campus police is one thing. It's safer. When reporting on this topic, the paper has the support of the student body. Critiquing our friends and peers takes a different kind of courage, but it's no less vital.

Search Student Union Board on The Pendulum's website and two articles pop up: "Winter Formal to be hosted by the Student Union Board" dated Jan. 19, 2010, and "Student Union Board revamps 'Movie on the Lawn,'" Sept. 16, 2008. While The Pendulum often covers events the Student Union Board sponsors, rarely do they analyze the organization itself. For example, students do not know the process of how bands and events are brought to campus. They do not know how much those bands are events cost. These are issues students deserve to know about.

SUB operates on a massive six-figure budget, with more than $500,000. They are as much, if not more, influential to student life than SGA. Again, there is no accountability. And once again, the student body is subject to disservice.

I do not doubt that the members of both of these organizations work hard for students. And I don't suggest that they are doing something wrong. The fact is, we don't know because student media doesn't cover them nearly enough.

Sadly, the necessity for student media to serve as a watchdog is multiplied by the perpetual lack of engagement by SGA. Aside from the occasional tweet or Facebook status, SGA offers no substantial updates on its activities. During his administration, former President Justin Peterson regularly updated SGA's YouTube channel with video updates from SUB. President Taylor Martin has posted none.

Given the fact that SGA operates a budget of more than $700,000, students deserve more than occasional election results.
Thankfully, there has been some movement toward holding SGA accountable.

Last year, The Pendulum and Phoenix14 collaborated on an SGA election special, where hosts Randy Gyllenhaal and Morgan Little interviewed student government candidates before SGA elections. It was an effective special, giving students the opportunity to see and hear from their candidates. But accountability should not end there.

No one can deny them their success and consistent quality of work. In terms of winning awards — like the Hearst Journalism Awards — Phoenix14 and The Pendulum are peerless here at Elon. (They are also peerless in their mentioning of how many awards they win.) But winning awards is never the priority, because there is a difference in playing a journalist and being a journalist. That's a mantra students can depend on.