A Peralta trustee accused the Citizen newsroom of unethical practices. Her comments were incorrect and inappropriate.
October 26, 2020
By Jacquelyn Opalach, Editor in Chief
What’s valuable about our newsroom — and the Peralta colleges, for that matter — is our multifaceted diversity. Our staff transcends age, race and background. Together, we are parents and grandparents, international students, people returning to college after years-long hiatuses, first time college students, people with doctorates, teenagers in high school, people who face housing and food insecurity, individuals who collect social security and more. There is little we have collectively in common, except that we are community college students who share an interest in journalism. Our newsroom is a microcosm of the Peralta colleges, and that is what makes us a qualified and powerful student publication.
As a student publication, we — the students — do everything ourselves. I am The Citizen’s editor in chief. I facilitate the direction of our coverage, approve and delegate what is written and publish and edit every article — all with the help of other student editors. Our advisor, Eleni Gastis, serves as a teacher and guide. She helps us learn how to fact-check our work and lectures on news writing and ethics in journalism. Gastis supports us as any advisor should, but it is we, the students, who decide what is published and how it is framed.
We strive to practice journalism with the same transparency we would like to see from our district, and I am proud of our success in that area. Publishing The Citizen is a massive undertaking, and we all love what we do.
Recently, a Peralta trustee publicly questioned the validity of our newsroom in terms of every important factor outlined above: diversity, legitimacy as students and the transparency and ethics of our work.
During the last board of trustees meeting on October 13, as the newsroom watch party wrapped up our group chat, we celebrated a shoutout from Trustee Karen Weinstein for a job well done on the trustee candidate endorsements The Citizen recently published. We were surprised with additional attention from Trustee Linda Handy, who also commented on our endorsements during her report.
“I was very disturbed to hear that candidates were asked to do an interview with the Laney Citizen/Laney Tower, and then when they came on — because some of the candidates only want to talk to students, they don’t have an opponent, they’re already going to be in those seats — and they said they felt they were tricked, because when they came onto the Zoom, there were no students. They were all adults, older, maybe some of them may have been enrolled.”
Handy continued: “I want students to be able to be students. I want us to encourage students. I don’t want us to push students for our agendas.”
It is clear that Handy was uninformed about our process and the composition of our newsroom when she made these comments. However, it is unclear whether Handy did this from a place of genuine concern. Making the accusations publicly and in a position of power was reckless given the blatant misunderstandings that substantiated her statements.
By claiming that candidates were “tricked” by our forum, Trustee Handy undermined the ethical integrity and general practices of our newsroom. We advertised the forums to the public on social media, and I announced that they would be open to the Peralta community during public comment at a board meeting a week before the forums took place. Prior to the event, we informed candidates that there would be an audience. We let them know their responses and participation in the forums would shape our collective position regarding endorsements. Although the forums were public, questions were limited to those written and asked by students from our newsroom. Our process is clearly outlined in the introduction of our endorsements.
But the purpose of this editorial is not to only correct Handy’s misunderstanding of our process. More importantly, we would like to address her claim that there were no students present at the forum. This statement is untrue and damaging. The event was completely student-run. As editor in chief, I moderated the forums while five different student reporters interviewed the candidates. Our staff ranges in age, but that does not mean we are not all students.
To assume that our interviewers are not students solely because they are not all fresh out of high school sends a dangerous message to the massive student body Trustee Handy is meant to represent. One would imagine that over her 18 years serving on the Peralta Board of Trustees, Handy would know that not all Peralta students look the same. It is alarming that this is not the case.
Between Peralta’s four colleges, an average of 13.05 percent of students are over the age of 40. Trustees are elected to represent the entire student body and every move they make directly affects these students — including Handy’s comments. Her responsibility is to the entire student body, regardless of her personal opinions about their age.
Furthermore, Handy worries that our newsroom was pushed for a non-student agenda, and this is completely false. The endorsements are authentically ours. Our newsroom collectively discussed our impressions of the candidates and voted together on whether or not endorse each candidate. These decisions were entirely student-made. Handy’s suggestion that we were not acting independently — during the forum or in writing our endorsements — feels like an attempt to discredit our work. Although interviewing candidates and writing endorsements is very typical of newsrooms, putting on these forums and choosing whether to endorse the candidates were not easy tasks. Handy’s diminishing of our efforts is insulting.
To suggest that we were pushed by a non-student “agenda” implies that our advisor, Eleni Gastis, overstepped her duties as a teacher and acted unethically. Because of precedent set by the Supreme Court case Tinker vs Des Moines, Gastis legally cannot control our content, and her attempt to do so would also be a breach of the Journalism Education Association’s advisor code of ethics. Therefore, Handy’s suggestion that Gastis meddled is a slanderous accusation. Handy did not reach out to our newsroom — students or advisor — with these concerns before publicly speaking on them. From the perspective of students, who know that our efforts were our own, it is alarming that one of our trustees made no effort to pursue the truth before voicing such an allegation.
Handy concluded her comments with a statement that is heard all too often by journalism students: “In terms of the article, I think it was really well written. It didn’t even seem like a student newspaper.”
No matter Handy’s intentions, and as innocent as this comment may have been uttered, it is important the Peralta community understands: this is not a compliment. It suggests that student work is normally low-quality — journalism and otherwise. Around the nation, student journalists at community colleges, four-year universities and high schools produce important, groundbreaking content each day. Student journalists are learners who care deeply about truth, writing, integrity, advocacy and ethics.
We are proud to be student journalists. It is not our intention to appear as otherwise.
Here is a recording of Trustee Handy’s comment:
Six members of our newsroom wrote personal stories in response to Handy’s comments. What follows are excerpts from that series of stories, which became writings of who we are, how we got here and what being student journalists means to us.
Pamela Rudd, Opinion Editor
The first day of my return to school as an “adult learner,” the AC equipment didn’t work. There were no blinds on the windows to block the afternoon sun. It was blazing hot, and I was surrounded by “kids” with tattoos and piercings. They were scrolling through phones and speaking in a language I could not understand. Their “accents” were new to my ear and they used words in a context I had never heard before. I was an “old” white lady and the proverbial “fish out of water.” It was as if I was 18 again and filled with the fear of not fitting in.
Eleni Gastis would have looked like any one of the other students except she stood at the front of the class and claimed her position as professor. I was stunned by how open she was and how quickly she connected to the students. She talked about journalism, class expectations and about trauma, acknowledging that some news we would discuss could be triggering. She encouraged everyone to ask for help, and with little functioning equipment, no AC or shade tree, she created a safe space for each of us. Read Pam’s full story here.
Christy Price, Photo Editor
I traveled across the country from Oakland, CA to the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia, PA in a caravan dubbed “Journey for Bernie.” I marched in the streets with a rag-tag group of “Revolutionaries” for a week in sweltering heat, holding on to the belief that fighting for good could change the world. A few months later I flew into Bismarck, ND to bear witness to the atrocities that mercenaries and local, state and federal governments were committing against United States citizens. I stood in solidarity with the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe in the fight against what is now considered an illegally built pipeline.
Both of these experiences sparked a few passions inside of me: Photography, activism, and independent journalism. In the spring of 2019, I signed up for school because I could not afford to make payments on my predatory student loans and being enrolled would defer them. I began part time as a photography major. My first semester was two photography courses and an anthropology course. The next semester I added photojournalism. For my final assignment in that class I covered the Indigenous People’s Sunrise Ceremony on Alcatraz Island. Not only did I get an “A” on the assignment, the piece was picked up by an independent publication, the Panther Times.
This led to my role as photo editor and staff writer on The Citizen. This is my second semester on staff. Read Christy’s full story here.
Ryan Barba, Managing Editor
Before returning to Laney in 2017, my life was filled with reckless choices and misdirection. I dropped out of high school at 16, unmotivated and not caring about my education. The only progressive thing during that period of my life was my love for writing. Destiny would have it that in the fall of that year, my journey would cross paths with then English Department Co-Chair Eleni Gastis. Her English 1A class centered primarily on the growth of her students personally, academically and professionally. Miss G. believed in my writing and encouraged me to pursue an internship with the Oakland Voices community journalism program that semester — despite not having any prior experience. I was selected for the internship, and for the first time in my academic career I felt that success was attainable. Earning that internship opened my eyes to the wider lens of what journalism is and galvanized my pursuit in that major and to work harder in academics. Read Ryan’s full story here.
William Ink, Staff Writer
My name is William Ink and I am a 54 year old white male, Oakland local and longtime resident of the city. I grew up working in my father’s restaurant and catering business in the heart of downtown from the age of five. Our “greasy spoon” filled the stomachs and captured the hearts of very loyal customers for over 45 years until my father’s passing in the mid nineties. I continued to serve the Bay Area in the home restoration business and in 2017, returned to Peralta after a 30-year hiatus to pursue my dream of a career in the arts. I would love my final career to be delivering content that may be of interest and service to the community dearest to me in Oakland. I believe the Peralta Community College District is a bridge to that reality. Read Will’s full story here.
Veronica Steiner, Features Editor
2020 has challenged me emotionally, physically and professionally, but most importantly it gave me the opportunity to assess what I really want from my life. When I lost my job due to the COVID-19 pandemic, I saw an opportunity to chase my dream: finish my degree and break into the world of journalism. This August I jumped in headfirst. I wasn’t sure how this would look for my family. I was unemployed and my husband would have to bear the burden of being the sole provider for our growing family. Nevertheless, he supported my decision and we decided to move forward, assessing and adjusting as we went along.
Classes started on August 24 and it was in Journalism 18 (News Production) that I realized I had made the right decision. All roads had led me to this moment — to this place — to this opportunity. Read Veronica’s full story here.
David Rowe, Copy Editor
I am one of several “older” Laney journalism students who decided to go back to school after pursuing a career in another field (in my case, advertising). Rather than feeling out of place, my participation in these classes provides an opportunity to sharpen my writing skills, to think objectively, and to learn about journalism from an outstanding professor. It also has been a lot of fun to work alongside other highly committed journalism students of all ages and backgrounds.
During my interview with candidate Dayana Delfín Polk, we discussed the best way to reverse declining enrollment. I offered my own story as an example of how seniors represent an untapped segment of potential new students. Facing a double digit drop in enrollment, it is imperative the Peralta district and its trustees expand their view of what represents a “typical” community college student. Read David’s full story here.