Editorial: W&L needs to reconsider its relationship with the press

Administrators don’t respond. Students only respond after a piece is published. And us? Well, we respond with this.


Bri Hatch

Our usual end-of-the-night tradition on layout days: inscribing the end time on a Reid Hall whiteboard. Photo by Bri Hatch, ’23

Bri Hatch and Shauna Muckle

Let’s talk about that Pi Phi piece. Yup, the one that got us called lazy journalists, anti-Greek indies and—our personal favorite—weirdos.
We knew long before publishing that members of Pi Phi wouldn’t like the article. We were prepared for an onslaught. At a school as small as Washington and Lee, writers on the Phi’s toughest stories have had who we’re dating, who we’re living with, which Greek organizations we’re members of (or our indie status) and our physical appearances used against us.
Still, the attacks on our journalistic standards were the toughest to swallow. Fizz users commented in response to the Pi Phi piece, “Ring tum phi is literally just W&L’s tabloid.” Another said, “i hope bri and shauna know their ‘journalism’ would go straight into any respected newspaper’s shredder.”
We want to take an opportunity to respond on-the-record, bylines attached, to the many members of this community who regard accountability coverage with cheers when it focuses on something or someone they dislike, and with hostility when it forces them to look inward.
And for members of our community to whom this isn’t a response, we instead want this piece to function as part plea, part public notice. A healthy student press makes our school better. Talking to the press helps clear the air and make our reporting complete. We are not out to get you—to the contrary, we agonize about fairness, context and confirmation in every piece we write.
(See also: the countless Sundays we spent cooped up in Reid until 2 a.m., editing and re-editing until all sanity was gone.)
To be clear, we don’t mind the hate. As one journalism professor here said, “You don’t become a journalist to make people like you.” But students here need to seriously examine what they pay attention to, and what they’re defending.
What’s been most hurtful and bewildering about smacks on the Phi’s reputation is how it’s been an about-face compared to the beginning of last semester. On Feb. 15, we published our first piece about a student arrested for sexual assault. The feedback was overwhelmingly positive. One anonymous Fizz user said, “The Ring Tum Phi is my New York Times.”
Another said, “Ring Tum Phi always comes in clutch. I truly appreciate how they don’t bullshit and tell us the truth. Shoutout to Bri Hatch, Jenny Hellwig, and Shauna Muckle.”
Students approached us on campus to thank us for the coverage. Alumni that work at Politico and the Washington Business Journal posted their praises on Twitter.
But once we uncovered details on investigations against Greek organizations in our next edition, the accolades abruptly stopped. We still featured another 2,500 words on sexual assault and Title IX on a campus that has historically kept such matters hush-hush. But our credibility was getting dunked on by students outraged that we shed light on their own social groups.
We even received accusations of defamation from a fraternity mentioned in an opinion piece that, ironically, was also mostly about sexual assault. And then came the first allegation of “lazy journalism” and bias.
It felt like a punch to the gut when we were already down (reporting on sexual assault as victims ourselves and getting waved off by the administration for weeks on end was, believe it or not, triggering and debilitating). And what confused us most is that we had followed the exact same reporting processes with our Greek life coverage as we had with our much-acclaimed sexual misconduct reporting.

A Fizz screenshot of an anonymous post reading "The ring tum phi authors who wrote the pi phi hit piece are weirdos." The post has 67 upvotes.
The most low-key example of the Fizz hate sent our way (there were much more explicit ones, which we wish we could feature). Screenshot taken from Fizz

Every piece we’ve written on Greek life has involved contacts in the double-digits, including asking the leaders and/or senior members of each organization detailed questions and requesting administrative comment. When direct questions get ignored, we’ve relied on documents and texts to provide more concrete evidence, and we’ve contextualized accounts that could be biased. We have never framed what someone says as an indisputable fact—but we also don’t shoot the messenger if we highlight their account.
More than anything, we’ve lamented that we wish we could get leaders at this university (presidents of Greek organizations and administration members in particular) to tell us a single damn thing, because we take deep pride in coverage that’s fair, accurate and balanced, not coverage that’s negative just for the sake of it.
No, we don’t hate Pi Phi, or Greek life writ large, and we don’t love Theta. We report what we can find out, and if an organization looks “good” in our reporting, it’s probably because leadership went on record, rather than letting the narrative end with disgruntled anonymous sources and leaked documents. Regardless of your organization’s media policy, we want the other side of the story, and we try to get it every time, even when student and university-led institutions alike make it near-impossible.
To students: If you want more holistic coverage, talk to us. If you want to see our journalistic process, write for us. If you are involved in an organization being held accountable by our coverage, consider your bias before firing off the anonymous hate on Fizz. Or at least look us in the eye when you levy your complaints.
And to the administration, who may or may not read this: maybe your hands are tied by the university’s media policy. But endless wave-offs of “no comment on student conduct matters” when we’re asking general questions or for sit-down interviews feels dismissive and insulting. We are students too. Washington and Lee’s communications department loves when we rake in journalism awards, but in the day-to-day context of our reporting, we feel insignificant.
For fairness’s sake, some members of the administration have at least responded to policy-related questions. Assistant Dean of Students Kyle McCoil and Title IX Coordinator Lauren Kozak deserve recognition for honoring that bare minimum. Of course, limited responses over email still make it hard to humanize figures of authority, but we truly try our best.
As a parting note, we already get enough hate from 70-year-old alumni who flood our inbox every once in a while. But at least when they call the Phi “lying, civilization destroying, narcissistic hypocrite garbage,” they attach their names to it. And to them, we’re just nameless, faceless representatives of the “current woke Ministry of Truth.”
But again, we are students too. You see us scavenging in E-hall and waiting for our caffeine fix in Tea House. We commiserate over the same classes and finals. We come to your offices for services and support.
If we sound bitter, it’s because, admittedly, we are. But this piece isn’t supposed to be an outpouring of discontent. It’s another attempt to clarify our reporting processes and offer an open-call to just talk to us, or if you don’t trust us, to offer constructive criticism on how we can be better. Our inbox at [email protected] is always open to letters to the editor from students, faculty and staff.
To those in the campus community who have defended us at any point, thank you. The Phi exposes information in order to serve students, first and foremost. Receiving acclaim in pursuit of that mission means the world to us.
We weigh our community obligations in everything we publish and always, always welcome your comments aimed towards helping us be better better. But we’ve got a speaking tradition, people. Please, just look us in the eye when you say them.