The Wheel Spins: Integrity, Agenda, and Ethics in Emory Journalism
By THE EPR EDITORIAL TEAM | March 29, 2018
On Wednesday, March 28, The Emory Wheel published “Ma Under Investigation For Electoral Misconduct,” a story regarding apparent accusations of elections misconduct against 2018 SGA Presidential candidate Dwight Ma. Four students reported Ma to the SGA Elections Board, accusing him of trying to obtain votes by buying drinks and bribing students with SGA executive positions. Ma responded to these reports on Tuesday with a complaint to the Elections Board against SGA presidential candidate, Mario Karras. He asserted that Karras colluded with his friends to create fake stories. In a string of what reads more as gossip than tactful investigative reporting, the Wheel article highlights anecdotal evidence between Ma and two of the students who reported him. While it attempts to detail Ma’s intention for buying drinks for students, the article devolves into a “he said, she said” argument that unnecessarily pulls random student bystanders into the fold.
The Wheel article further cites Oxford Sophomore Senator Daniel Guo and Oxford Business Club President Sahaj Anand as students who reported Ma. According to the article, both students alleged that Ma offered executive board positions on SGA in exchange for votes. Unfortunately, the authors fail to mention the questionable tactics and unethical standards utilized in their data collection. The EPR reached out to Anand and Guo, who recounted that they did not originally respond to the Wheel’s email to comment and instead directly emailed Betty Zhang, Chair of the SGA Elections Board. Anand, on behalf of the entire Oxford Business Club, informed her of Ma’s unexpected attendance to an Oxford Business Club meeting, where Ma described his partiality regarding various appointed VP positions. While Ma did not discuss his presidential platform, he noted that he would be running for SGA elections.
Guo also directly spoke with Ma to express his interest in Ma’s candidacy. He notes that Ma also implied his intentions to be partial in appointing students to executive positions. Guo explicitly requested anonymity when he presented similar concerns to Zhang, according to e-mail correspondence obtained by the EPR. Yet, Zhang entirely disregarded his privacy request and presumably leaked these statements to the Wheel.
In her statement to the EPR team, Zhang placed accountability solely on the Elections Board. She stated the Elections Board acts independently from the Emory Wheel, and she does not "stand to accuse anyone of trying to politicize this issue of electoral misconduct." She claimed that she aims to "make the election process clear and transparent" and she is "not held accountable by the actions of other student organizations involved." When pressed for clarification on whether she reached out to the Wheel first with reports of electoral misconduct, Zhang stated that she did not "want to say anything that can be disputed."
Although ignoring this request is not against the SGA’s Election Code, it is hardly a considerate, clean investigation practice. Anonymity should not be a privilege given up once a report is filed. Representatives of the SGA Executive Board, whom we shall grant the anonymity that journalistic ethics expects of us on their request, expressed concern with the Elections Board's behavior and their open communication to the Wheel regarding superficial, arbitrary aspects of the election investigation against the wishes of many contributors. According to those we spoke to in SGA, the Elections Board possesses the right in their code, which is currently unavailable, to discuss identities among themselves and SGA. However, direct conveyance of this information to the Wheel raises issues for Emory students that have continued to stir amidst controversy in the last few days. The Oxford Business Club Executive Board collectively released an Open Letter addressing the Wheel’s “dubious journalistic integrity” and the “ethical and functional failure of the Election’s [sic] Board” on Wednesday night, following Dwight Ma’s Facebook posts.
It is also important to note that the Wheel endorsed Elias Neibart for the SGA presidential election, an author for the publication. It argues that Neibart’s SGA experience, professionalism, and thorough platform make him the best candidate. It even urges Neibart to “look to the vision laid out by fellow candidate Dwight Ma.” Clearly, the Wheel views Ma as a formidable opponent for Neibart, as little is mentioned about Karras until the end of the article. The article simply notes that Karras’ vision is unimpressive and platform is “too diffuse to be effective…” The two reasons mentioned to distinguish Neibart and Ma in the article were Ma’s “refreshingly unorthodox attitude” and lack of “the same bureaucratic capabilities that Neibart has.” This notion of the candidate's “bureaucratic capabilities” may stem from the Wheel’s failure to research Ma’s two years serving on SGA at the Oxford College and his contributions to the Carter Center.
Soon after both Wheel articles, Dwight Ma took to Facebook to discount a smear campaign he attributes to Karras and his friends. He maintained his innocence in this matter and provided photographic evidence as support. This post caused a massive uptick in social media attention on Ma. A public spectacle ensued following a thread of comments by candidates Ma, Karras, and various Emory students. Ma was later compelled to host a Facebook live interview, where he briefly answered questions and focused on self-defense rather than analysis of the Wheel article, beyond taking issue with its title.
The EPR team sought further insight from Ma. In an in-person interview with candidate Dwight Ma, the Emory Political Review confronted him over the allegations of patronage and a drinks-for-votes scheme. In response to the drink-for-votes scheme, Ma rejected the accusation. He insisted that his time at Maggie’s Neighborhood Bar was him “just trying to make friends.“ The SGA presidential race and his candidacy certainly did come up in his discussions with fellow students. Additionally, Ma introduced his platform to those willing to listen. However, he claimed to have urged voters to participate in the election in general. He refused that an exchange of drinks for votes took place either implicitly or explicitly.
In regard to the Wheel’s coverage of candidate Ma’s meeting with the Oxford Business Club, he says he wanted to pitch his candidacy to a former club. In response to the accusations about his partiality, he clarified that he merely encouraged everyone to apply. Ma “wanted to encourage Oxford students in SGA.” Ma further argued that the Wheel’s piece is “misleading in terms in coverage. The headline does not reflect the whole story and the tone is biased. They assumed me as guilty [and that] is not correct. It makes me look weak; that is a problem.” Ma maintains that Elias Neibart was running a clean campaign and signaled respect to his fellow candidate. He also noted that Karras offered him a potential appointed position if he chose not to run. Rejecting the offer and now involved in an intense election controversy, Ma admitted that he and Karras are locked in a competition for Oxford votes.
In his interaction with Daniel Guo, Dwight Ma claims he encouraged Guo to apply in recognition of Guo’s service in the Oxford SGA. Ma admits that he feels that the Wheel may have insinuated a more sinister discussion between him and Guo. Ma rejects the notion that he was insinuating a trade for support and an appointment.
It is also worth noting that the potential frontrunner in the race, Elias Neibart, would benefit from avoiding a runoff. In a three-way election with two former Oxford candidates, the former Oxford candidates are locked in a competition to win over the Oxford voting bloc. The Wheel article further pits the two against one another and paints their campaigns as sloppy in the public eye. This tactic can drive those justifiably seeking stability and avoiding scandal to take their vote to Neibart’s camp, which further enables Neibart to secure over half of the vote and avoid a runoff. A runoff between Neibart and either candidate would be more difficult to win. However, this notion does not constitute an implication that Neibart or his campaign is directly involved with the Wheel’s piece.
In an interview with the EPR team, candidate Mario Karras described his relationship with Dwight Ma and echoed Ma’s recount of their shared experience in Oxford SGA. He even described going to each other’s birthday parties. When asked about the current election scandal, Karras said it “tarnishes both of our images and makes both of us look bad.” Additionally, Karras asserted that it impedes “the possibility of a runoff. It is unwanted bad attention.” Karras argued that the Emory Wheel should have kept anonymous the names of those who filed a formal complaint to the SGA’s Elections Board. The Wheel's actions delegitimize a formal investigation into the allegations, fostering a public spectacle.
In response to the EPR’s questions surrounding his perspective on the allegations against the Ma campaign, Karras said “I don’t know if it was his intention to buy votes, but it was certainly suspicious.” Karras admitted that the individuals who filed the complaint with the Elections Board did approach him before doing so. He directed them to the Elections Board since they felt uncomfortable with Ma’s methods.
Due to the clear lack of consideration that the Election Board holds for the privacy of Emory Students, many of those who came forward with their accounts informed the Emory Political Review of their growing discomfort following the Wheel article's publication. Publications that strive to uphold the ethical and journalistic integrity of Emory as an institution must direct their efforts toward representing the University's tenets in these fields upon encountering scandal, rather than promoting sensationalized accounts inundated with personal agenda.
EDIT: The Emory Wheel has asked us to attach their prompt reply to our inquiry prior to this article's posting. Their statement is included below.
Elections Board Chair Betty Zhang provided The Emory Wheel with the written complaints and names of the complainants. Complaints brought to the attention of the Elections Board are not anonymous and all hearings are public, per the Emory Student Government Association Code of Elections. Additionally, all documents of the SGA are public, per the Emory Student Government Association’s Constitution.
The Emory Wheel adheres to the prevailing code of ethics by the Society of Professional Journalists, which states that newspapers should identify all sources of information clearly to allow readers to evaluate sources’ credibility and motivations for providing the information. We grant anonymity in extreme cases, such as if the source is in imminent physical danger.
Editor-in-Chief, The Emory Wheel