"Two sides to every story, even though what was first reported was without regard for the students."
"Way to finish the story you should have printed the first time around, instead of perpetuating the (rumours) of cheating....Lazy reporting Brandon Sun."
"I cannot believe this article was published with no input from the students in question. Making sure that all sides of the story were brought to light should have been a priority, not just humiliating a whole class that might have done nothing wrong."
— Comments made by readers on the Sun’s Facebook page last week
One week ago, mid-afternoon on Monday, I took a call on our city desk line from an individual who had a rather interesting story to tell. The person in question claimed to be a relative of a nursing student at Brandon University — one who wanted to remain anonymous — who had just been told that their entire second-year class would have to retake a final exam.
The reason, he said, was that the original test handed to the students in November of last year had questions that had been pulled off of a freely available online study guide that had been used by several students in the class. Our initial source told us that someone in the class had come forward to the dean of nursing, Dr. John Moraros, after the fact and told the truth about the matter.
How it came about that the test questions given by the course’s instructor, Dr. Ali Salman, were the same as those used on the online study guide’s study test our source wasn’t clear. But the study guide was apparently based on the same textbook that the students were using.
With this news tip to follow, the Sun’s education reporter began making calls that day to confirm the situation, first to our initial source to clarify details, and then reaching out to various nursing students who were members of a social media chat page, for further verification. Little did we know how difficult that would prove.
We also obtained one piece of the puzzle early on — a letter from Moraros to the students that outlined the fact the whole class would repeat the final exam with the understanding that they would receive a "maximum grade of 70 per cent" on it.
"I believe this is a fair and reasonable sanction for this act of dishonesty and misconduct," he wrote.
After contacting Brandon University on Tuesday to attempt to verify the letter, it then took until Wednesday for the university to do so. In the meantime, attempts to speak directly with our initial contact’s student relative fell flat, as they wished to keep their identity hidden from us. And so did every single second-year nursing student we attempted to contact — we had no responses from anyone. Even the Brandon University Students’ Union refused to go on the record with a comment about the situation, a fact that I find rather troubling considering the organization is supposed to represent the student body.
So we were left with a choice: Do we hold the story hoping that someone will eventually come forward on the record, or do we publish the verifiable information we had in our hands and hope that it sparks people to come forward to give the student’s version of the story?
Using anonymous sources is always difficult, for not only does a source have to trust the reporter and media in question, but we too have to be able to trust the source, and we have to be able to independently verify the information given, or at least acquire several independent accounts of the same story. By late Wednesday, it was rather apparent that the only way we would get more information was to put the university’s version of the story out into the open, and express a desire to speak to students directly.
Admittedly, the story we published last Thursday that reported students were being punished after their exam was deemed "compromised" was less complete than I had hoped. However, considering that there was a possibility that an entire class of students was being treated unfairly by the university, and that it appeared the class was being pressured not to speak with us — or any media, really — better to report the details we could confirm and then continue to investigate afterwards. Better to expose the situation rather than run the risk that it gets swept under the carpet.
That decision, and our initial Thursday story, led to a dozen new leads and news tips, which helped us follow the story on Saturday, the same day that students were to rewrite their exams.
Yet even in that story we have not reported everything we have been told. We stuck to details that were corroborated through independent sources multiple times. We also made sure to tell readers how we acquired these sources, and their demands of anonymity.
I have since been told that now that the second exam has been administered, the university may come forward with further details about the situation. I am hopeful students will feel equally able to come forward to us. There is no doubt more to this story than we currently know.
» Matt Goerzen, Brandon Sun managing editor