Letter from the editor: how we reported on AU’s isolation conditions

We have an obligation to seek the truth and report it

Letter from the editor: how we reported on AU’s isolation conditions

As journalists, we're taught to never make ourselves part of the story. Our job is to tell the stories of others and hold institutions accountable. But what happens when the best way to communicate the truth to the public is to tell your own story?

The Eagle’s recently published piece, “I was hospitalized for COVID-19 while in isolation housing” challenges the principle of leaving ourselves out of our reporting. This story relied on the reporter to tell a story that would have not been possible without their participation in it due to the unique circumstances that arose during their isolation. We decided it was an important story to tell and wanted to think outside of the box to do so, resulting in the story you’ve likely read by now. 

Our reporter, like the more than 1,000 students at American University this past academic year, simply got sick with COVID-19. They did not intend to get sick or be hospitalized for reporting purposes. What you’ve read in their reporting is a direct account of what they saw and experienced while in the University’s isolation housing and in dealing with their hospitalization while under the University’s care, and the questions it raised about the University’s response to dealing with COVID-19 this past year. 

The Eagle’s Ethics Code prohibits conflicts of interest, which is the reason why this story was told as a first-person narrative. A conflict of interest would be a reporter not being allowed to report on an organization they are a member of, for example. This story relied on the integrity of the reporter to tell it, and like any other solid piece of reporting, the reporter reached out to the proper University officials to get answers to their questions and as the Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics asks of us, seek the truth and report it. This story is not about The Eagle. It is about the ways that AU has dealt with responding to COVID-19, and provides a firsthand look at a situation no one wants to end up in — in isolation, and eventually, in the hospital.

Our reporters have been covering the University’s response to the coronavirus pandemic for the past two years. Every reporter and editor appreciates the time University officials take to respond to our requests, as we know they have other duties to attend to, and we take that to heart. Sometimes, the University is forthcoming with information and responsive to our questions. Others, a little less so, often leaving us more confused and frustrated as we try to do our jobs. Even in the reporting of this story, our reporter took great efforts to reach out to the proper University officials, leading to their reporting being dragged on for months on end as they tried to obtain information from University officials. In that same vein, it’s important to acknowledge that several University officials with positions relevant to this story did not want to be on the record for it or comment. 

Students, faculty, staff and the community as a whole deserve transparency surrounding COVID-19 from the University. What our reporter experienced while in isolation raises questions about the University’s ability to live up to the “community of care” it so often touted in its pandemic response over the past two years.

As students, we walk a fine line when it comes to covering the community we live in and being impacted by the issues we are reporting on. In order to keep our community fully informed and continue holding the University accountable for its decisions, I believe The Eagle would have done the AU community a disservice by choosing not to tell this story.

I recognize this style of reporting is unusual and not something typically seen in The Eagle, and I hope readers will understand why we made the choice to report this story in the way that we did. Yet, we are committed as a newspaper to being honest, truthful, accurate and fair. 

nheller@theeagleonline.com 

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