A lesson in media ethics

Student chooses activism over campus newspaper job

Chico State journalism student Kevin Hagedorn made the front page of the Orion by participating in a provocative protest involving a toy pistol.

Chico State journalism student Kevin Hagedorn made the front page of the Orion by participating in a provocative protest involving a toy pistol.

Photo By Kyle delmar

A silent, mock-execution protest last month on the Chico State campus has become an object lesson in ethics.

The participants were Amro Jayousi, Chico State’s Associated Students president, and the campus newspaper’s video editor, Kevin Hagedorn. The four-hour spectacle—a tableau, really—was meant to remind viewers of the 1968 Pulitzer Prize-winning Vietnam War photo “Saigon Execution” by Eddie Adams.

The event, and Hagedom’s subsequent refusal to stop engaging in such demonstrations in the future, resulted in his forced resignation from the student-run newspaper, The Orion, near the end of the fall semester.

It was a hands-on lesson in media ethics for the 27-year-old news-editorial and media-arts double major.

As Orion Editor-in-Chief Matt Shilts explained, the paper’s employees cannot be expected to refrain from involvement in groups such as churches or even some political rallies, but they must refrain from being the center of attention in them.

“We understood his principled stand and agreed that members of our editorial board can’t continue to make such public displays,” Shilts said.

Hagedorn’s highly visible demonstration, which took place in the Trinity Commons area on campus, became an issue for editors at the newspaper very quickly. A large color photo of the protest appeared as the dominant art on the Orion’s front page in the fall semester’s last issue, on Dec. 15. It shows Hagedorn, a U.S. Army veteran, wearing his official uniform and holding a green toy pistol to the head of Jayousi, a Palestinian. No words were spoken during the protest. Only a two-foot-wide sign was placed in front of the two men. It read “Obama’s War is a Crime.”

Hagedorn has real combat experience and was deployed three times to each of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars from 2002 to 2007 as a member of the U.S. Army Rangers. His experience and education during and after his service turned him staunchly against all wars.

“Some of my family background and especially my education after my service showed me how wrong wars are,” he said. “It’s too bad we react so strongly to violent acts like the recent Arizona shootings, but not to the violence the U.S. causes in wars like Afghanistan and Iraq.”

He labeled the recent demonstration “political guerilla theater” and said it was designed to get the public thinking and talking about the morality of war.

“When President Bush got us into the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, many people, especially those on the left, protested and thought Bush was a war criminal,” Hagedorn said. “But now that Obama, who is considered a progressive, is continuing those wars, there’s hardly a peep about their immorality from anyone.”

Hagedorn and Jayousi are members of the campus Palestinian Solidarity Committee, whose members favor largely silent, thought-provoking demonstrations. Hagedorn said he has engaged in demonstrations previously, but not while he was a member of the Orion staff. At the time of the protest, he did not believe his participation in the event would be a problem. He learned in his classes that journalists were not to write about subjects in which they are involved, but that did not apply in this case.

Shilts acknowledged that the Orion does not specify which types of organizations or demonstrations a staff member cannot be a part of, but he said the editorial board decided that such a prominent display by one of its own was unacceptable.

He had words of praise for Hagedorn, despite his decision to resign: “I have nothing but admiration for the guy” he said.

Still, as a member of the media, his actions crossed the line.

Aaron Quinn, a Chico State ethics professor, explained that most members of the public can be expected to demonstrate politically without fear of reprisal. Journalists, however, must give up that right, he said.

“Even though video is not a big part of the Orion, a video editor can still pick and choose what content to include or even who to interview on camera,” he said. “Involvement in these types of protests defies the public’s trust.”

Quinn taught Hagedorn in an ethics class and said he is very honorable to show his strong opinions, but doing so conflicts with his duties as a member of the media. “It’s a classical journalistic standard that no matter what political positions you take, you can’t make them public,” he said.

Hagedorn said he is not conflicted over his decision.

“I parted on good terms from the Orion and felt my obligation to show public opposition to violence was more important than working for them,” Hagedorn said. “I still got credit and a good grade for the Orion class.”