Our apology for an insensitive, harmful debate question

At The Hatchet, our mission is to serve every member of the GW community not only with fairness, but also with sensitivity and awareness through our coverage. Whenever we fail in that mission, it is our job to address our shortcomings, own up to any harm or negative impact on the community, hold ourselves accountable and commit to betterment. Last week, The Hatchet asked a question at a public debate on campus that was inappropriate and harmful. We sincerely apologize for the question and the harm it created. We want to share our plan to educate ourselves and ensure that our coverage both reflects this mission and does not harm community members moving forward.

The Hatchet moderated a debate last week between GW College Democrats and GW College Republicans for both organizations to share and counter their views on various national issues at stake in the midterm elections. Before the event, two of The Hatchet’s news podcast hosts who conducted the debate agreed on four categories of questions – the economy, immigration, crime and education – with the debaters.

The night before the debate, I met with the hosts who would be moderating to review and edit their questions for about three hours. While discussing education, I suggested a question about how Republican leaders have supported restrictions against transgender athletes in women’s sports. We planned for the question to hold one side accountable for these restrictions that many have denounced as discriminatory on the basis of gender identity. But the question we wrote, directed at Republicans, was poorly worded: “Why do conservatives equate the inclusion of transgender female athletes as an attack on women’s athletics?” Though not our intent, the question was phrased in a way that invited the opportunity for transphobic rhetoric to be the topic of conversation in a debate, when we know for a fact that trans women are women, and that fact is not up for debate. I shouldn’t have let the question make it into the debate, and I sincerely apologize for that mistake.

Our intention was not – and never is – to create any harm through our work, but after the moderators updated the context of the script for the question the next day as planned, that angle shifted without my knowledge to hone in on the relation between these restrictions and the physiology of an individual, former University of Pennsylvania swimmer Lia Thomas. The inappropriate use of Thomas’ identity to frame the question created an opportunity to also harm members of our community who identify as transgender, nonbinary and queer.

Even worse, our moderator introduced the question by saying, “For our last question on education, we’re going to step on another political landmine.” We were taken aback and disappointed by this insensitive comment. It was uncalled for, placed a satirical filter over such a serious, sensitive topic and heightened the harm of an already-inappropriate question.

There was no acknowledgment of these mistakes from our moderators in the moment as there should have been, and no realization of their impact until online criticism caught our attention Wednesday. I was made aware that some students approached our moderators with concerns about a mention of Lia Thomas after the debate, but because the question we planned had no focus on individual athletes, I didn’t assume she had become the sole basis of the question until seeing the social media criticism and going through the event’s recording. Only then, did we on The Hatchet’s management team learn about what happened and start discussing the situation. Our response to this question at the debate should have been immediate, not reactionary, and that says a lot about where we need to improve and learn.

I would like to once again sincerely apologize for the series of mistakes that led up to this question at the debate and the harm it created for those in our GW community. We understand the impact of our publication as a community newspaper on a college campus, and the last thing we ever want to do is to contribute to the hate and discrimination that marginalized groups experience every day. We regret our mistake and will actively work to learn from it to better ourselves, the content we publish and our role in the GW community as a whole.

It is important that I am clear here as well. Identity should not be a topic we shy away from. As a student newspaper, it is our responsibility to represent, serve and tell the stories of all members of the GW community while holding parties in power accountable. So while our question under the topic of transgender identity was without a doubt framed inappropriately and worded poorly, we will stay committed to discussing gender identity and discrimination against transgender, gender nonconforming and queer individuals through respectful and accurate reporting and community relations.

I met with Dr. Jordan West, the associate vice provost for diversity, equity and community engagement, to discuss the chain of events that played out at the debate and understand how The Hatchet needs to own and make amends for the harm done. I arrived at a two-step process – apologize and educate. To act on the second of these two steps, The Hatchet will cover Transgender Awareness Week in the coming days with a focus on student organization programming with the permission and support of student leaders planning the events. We will also educate our team on Transgender Day of Remembrance, taking place Nov. 20. Additionally, we are currently in the middle of a three-part series of mandatory diversity, equity and inclusion workshops for our staff focusing on workplace environment, reporting on the GW and D.C. community and inclusive recruitment efforts. We plan to hold another meeting between Dr. West and the members of our podcast team to reflect on what went wrong at the debate. The work we have to do is urgent and ongoing.

We are committed to representing the diversity of our University community with nothing short of respect and inclusivity through our coverage and reporting, and learning from our mistakes is the bare minimum as a student newspaper. As part of my platform this volume, our push to improve how diversity is reflected among our staff and through our engagement with the community is central to our work. We hope to apply this priority to mending the harm we’ve incurred from last week’s debate among all other aspects of our mission as a newspaper. Please reach out to me at jwardwell@gwhatchet.com with any questions, concerns or general thoughts about these efforts. We’re always willing to listen.

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