Virginia Military Institute in Lexington. Photo courtesy of VMI.

The Virginia Press Association followed its rules when it gave its top annual award to a student newspaper from the Virginia Military Institute, according to an attorney tapped by the group to conduct an independent investigation into the outcome of the contest.

The inquiry did not review the association’s rules for the contest, only whether the award was granted in line with the existing rules.

The Cadet newspaper received the Journalistic Integrity and Community Service award in May for a package of articles addressing diversity, equity and inclusion training that had been implemented at the state-run college in Lexington following an investigation of reports of widespread racism there. 

[The stories can be viewed in the VPA winners’ gallery.]

The Cadet’s submission raised questions about the newspaper’s lack of disclosure that its alumni mentor has sued VMI, and about whether students were responsible for all the content that was published. Those questions led the VPA board to commission an independent report and hire Conrad Shumadine, a retired First Amendment attorney based in Norfolk.

Shumadine said in his report, which VPA released Thursday, that the association has no procedure for appealing or revoking a news outlet’s membership, or for reviewing a challenge to one of its awards. 

This year’s contest was judged by members of the Tennessee Press Association. VPA has confirmed that a single judge reviewed the entries for the journalistic integrity award but would not release the name of the judge. Shumadine’s report indicated there were three entries. (Cardinal News submitted one of them, but VPA has not disclosed the third entry.) 

The Journalistic Integrity and Community Service Award has been given out for 75 years, and until 2018 drew so many entries that the association broke judging into two categories based on circulation.

For the inquiry, Shumadine said by phone Thursday he “read everything that was given to me.” That included complaints that had been made to the VPA, “all the articles,” the rules of the contest and information about how the contest had been run in the past, he said. 

Most of the articles in the entry, which were published in 2022, are credited to “Cadet Staff” or anonymous contributors rather than to individual student writers.

The Cadet’s entry was lauded by the contest judge for its “robust dialogue” on the ongoing reforms at VMI, but the coverage as a whole is largely skeptical of DEI.

The entry also included an article about a lawsuit that a company owned by the newspaper’s mentor, VMI alumnus Bob Morris, brought against VMI for its process of selecting a firm to provide DEI training. The article did not disclose that the plaintiff, the Center for Applied Innovation, is owned by Morris. 

A Washington Post report in late May noted similarities between that Cadet article and a press release about the lawsuit that was published on an anti-DEI website called Protect Honor that is registered to Morris. 

The Cadet operates independently of VMI. A previous VMI-sanctioned newspaper of the same name shut down in 2016 due to what the school describes as a lack of student interest. 

Morris helped a group of students resurrect a new version of the newspaper in summer 2021, shortly after his suit was filed against VMI.

Morris did not respond to an emailed request for comment Thursday. 

Shumadine said he didn’t interview the judge for the journalistic integrity award or the staff of the student newspaper in his review of the VPA’s adherence to its rules. “I wouldn’t have thought that would have been necessary,” he said.

His report said that “Disqualification would require at a minimum conduct that deviates from normal and ethical journalistic standards.” But if the VPA were to determine that a “journalist or aspiring journalist” violated those standards, it could be defamatory “and could subject the VPA to litigation.” 

“It is hard to even articulate a process for overturning the Award that would not magnify controversy, open the door to litigation and place unacceptable burdens on future contests,” Shumadine wrote.

When asked whether the organization plans to review or change its rules for the contest or membership, VPA executive director Betsy Edwards responded via email: “We believe the report speaks for itself.”

VPA offers membership to daily and weekly newspapers, along with free-distribution and college newspapers. Freelance writers who have written for VPA member organizations are also eligible. Only one membership category, for online publications, requires that applicants must use “recognized standards of professional journalism” in order to be eligible.

Shumadine said by phone Thursday that he doesn’t think it’s appropriate for a lawyer to review the quality of journalism. But upon reviewing the three submissions for the top award, Shuadmine wrote, “Each of the submissions is well done and should be the subject of pride to the three submitters. The writing in each is clear, each addresses significant issues of public concern, and all seem consistent with the best traditions of public service journalism.”

He also noted in the report, in response to the Cadet’s contentious relationship with VMI, that “No one disputes the importance of VMI’s contributions to the Commonwealth, and nothing in this report is intended to diminish the debt all Virginians owe to a great institution.”

Lisa Rowan is education reporter for Cardinal News. She can be reached at or 540-384-1313.