The Claremont Port Side, a student newsmagazine at California’s Claremont McKenna College, has been receiving national attention and New York Times shout-outs for its spirited coverage of a scandal involving the manipulation of student SAT scores.
At the start of last week, Claremont McKenna President Pamela Gann informed students that a high-level administrator had been inflating student SAT scores since 2005 to help the school’s placement in numerous national higher education rankings. He was fired prior to the announcement and the college has subsequently instituted a series of reviews centered on its admissions data gathering and reporting.
Since the news broke, the Port Side has been credited with breaking several stories related to the scandal, including a compare-contrast breakdown of the original and altered SAT scores and a report based on an interview with Gann (after she turned down outside outlets including the New York Times). Staff have also garnered student reactions “ranging from anger to anxiety to viewing the situation in an almost favorable light.”
As Port Side campus editor Sam Kahr reported, “One predominating reaction on campus is contempt for the administration. Many are outraged at the emphasis that the administration has placed on improving the college’s rankings. . .Other students are fearful of the smudge on CMC’s reputation that could potentially result from the news. With a $56,000-a-year sticker price, a decent ethical reputation is one of the basic requirements that many students expect from the college.”
Some students separately told Kahr they were proud of the college for its transparency in dealing with a problem that many schools might be inclined to keep quiet about.
For its part, in the first story posted online about the incident, the Port Side noted, “At a competitive and selective liberal arts college such as CMC, the pressure to improve statistics is enormous. But no student should need to cheat on a test to get into a better college, and no college should need to alter its stats just to jump into the top 10 in the U.S. News and World Report rankings.”
In a pair of interviews, Port Side editor-in-chief Alyssa Roberts and senior reporter Jeremy B. Merrill discuss the college’s unfortunate situation, the magazine’s role in covering it, and their advice for student media faced with reporting on similar scandals.
Q: To start, what is the Port Side?
Roberts: We’re the progressive newsmagazine of the Claremont colleges. The Claremont colleges are a consortium. Claremont McKenna is where we were founded and where most of our writers go, so we cover Claremont McKenna stories very closely. There aren’t a lot of campus news outlets who are able to break news, so we focus on that. . . . We publish two to three print issues a semester. . . . We publish online four to five times a week. . . . We have about 25 staffers.
Q: With the scandal so far, what stories have been Port Side scoops?
Roberts: I can think of three or four major aspects of the story that we either broke or were one of the first organizations to really investigate. First, that it was Dean (Richard) Vos who falsified the information, who had resigned. Second, were the new and falsified SAT numbers, which we reported (last) Tuesday before the college had released them to other organizations. And then (last) Thursday, our publication and another campus publication sat down with President Gann for her first and only interview I believe so far. The New York Times actually published quite a bit of that. They were denied an interview. And that’s what appeared in their print edition (on Friday), page A15. Lastly was the Kiplinger story, that we had been removed from their (college rankings).
Q: When did you learn about the score manipulation, and how did you start reporting on it?
Merrill: It was (last) Monday morning. I had just gotten out of class. Got my smartphone out. There was (an email) subject line, ‘Important Message from President Gann.’ So I looked at that one first. I read the story (and) immediately called Alyssa, my editor. I tried to get in touch about what we’d want to put up. We had the email up already while I’d been in class. So we started doing the work trying to confirm exactly who it was who had resigned. We knew at the time that it was a ‘senior administrator’ and that they were a ‘he’. We were reasonably certain who it was at that point. But we checked with some folks who worked in admissions. They all confirmed who it was and so went ahead and published it.
Q: How did you get the comparative SAT scores that you reported on before anyone else?
Roberts: That’s just the nature of us being students and at the college. The school had updated their information, the reports, online (two Fridays ago). So we had the corrected data. . . . It was a source within the college that gave us the old, falsified scores.
Merrill: Tuesday morning, very early morning, right when I got up, a person invited me to come see them and gave me the (falsified SAT) data that the school hadn’t released yet. . . . I got the data, scanned it into the computer, uploaded it to DocumentCloud, and then got to work on the paper copy with a pencil and a couple highlighters, trying to figure out exactly what had been modified. . . . I just went through and compared every single number (on both lists) to see what was different. (I used a) yellow highlighter if the number was adjusted upward and a blue if it was adjusted downward. And let me tell you, the piece of paper here has a lot of yellows and a lot of blues.
Q: Have you been surprised by the amount of attention the Port Side has received for its coverage?
Roberts: I guess we knew it would be as big as it has become. (Last) Tuesday, when our campus was flooded with national reporters, some of the evening newscasts, TV cameras, they wanted student perspectives. People love a good scandal. And [a scandal at a] very selective liberal arts college makes for an interesting story. People like to follow that. I’ve definitely been surprised and also been pleased with the credit the Port Side’s been given– especially by the New York Times. They’ve been very, very good saying that we first broke a few of the stories we were able to break. That was very exciting for us.
Merrill: I was incredibly excited the first time that the New York Times linked to us. Actually, it came through as a pingback into my email. That was really very exciting. I posted a Facebook update about it and misspelled some words because I was so frantic to post it. People thought that was very funny. But it’s been very exciting, flattering to have my coverage be out there so much. I’m just glad to be doing a good job and have that be affirmed.
Q: What advice do you have for other student journalists faced with this sort of real-time, quickly-unfolding scandal?
Roberts: Be sure to clarify everything. I think we’ve only had to issue a correction in one of our stories so far on this, which is good. We’ve been very, very careful on making sure everything we’re reporting (and) all of our quotes are accurate. And have a good team and keep communication open. We have probably about 10 people working on this right now. And we all hear different things from across campus and just have an email chain going with what we hear. So we’re able to collaborate and brainstorm.
Merrill: The way to deal with it is the way that you would deal with anything else, just on a little bit of a faster time scale. Be sure to be thorough and correct and accurate. That’s always the goal. Just try to do a good job for your audience. The fact that you might be doing it 15 hours, as opposed to two hours, each day just means you’ve got more time to do good work.
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