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When Journalists Attack! (more on Facebook)

I've been telling various people privately that the DO coverage of the Facebook incident here at SU committed at least a couple of serious misrepresentations. One of these was that the comments reported by the story were far less objectionable than others they could have noted. Rather than get into the issue of "how objectionable is too objectionable" or repeat the comments themselves, I made the choice to let that mistake stand.

Unfortunately, other publications don't feel a similar sort of restraint. I won't link to it here, but you can visit Inside Higher Ed and see what the story looks like when journalism works without any consideration for the people involved. As I talked about in the last entry, for me, this is a question less of freedom than it is of consequences. I would never suggest that IHE (or any other outlet) is not "free" to cover the story in any way that they choose. I would suggest, though, that by choosing to include the names of the students and the instructor, and by choosing to include a graphic of the original Facebook page, IHE has effectively piled on.

And it's not in the interests of journalism. It's entirely possible to lay out this argument, to report on this situation, without naming the people involved, without publishing pictures. It's voyeurism, pure and simple, and it's a shitty thing.

Among other things, the story reports on the worries of one of the students:

“I will have a reprimand on my permanent record for seven years,? she added, “so if a grad school inquires into any interactions with judicial affairs or asks on an application if I had any violations that required punishment, this would apply.?

Setting aside the whole "permanent for seven years" thing, what this young woman doesn't seem to realize is that, long after the reprimand vanishes, guess what? she appears in a story accessible in a Google search on her name, one that makes certain, with graphic clarity, that what she did and said will be available to anyone interested.

By publishing their names, IHE has played their part in ensuring that this incident will survive long after all of the people involved have left Syracuse. And in the case of the instructor, who did not volunteer to be treated like this, publicly and offensively, IHE has repeated, and effectively extended, the harassment represented by the original site.

IHE knows this. The unfortunate thing about this is that they will hide behind the shield of saying that they're just covering the story in as much detail as they can. They won't endure the consequences of their choices the way that the people whose names appear in their article will. And I'm not sure what's worse: the idea that they understand the consequences of reposting harassing materials but choose to do so anyway, or the idea that they didn't think it through. Neither option provides me with much comfort.

It provides me with one certainty, though: it's a fucking shameful thing that Inside Higher Ed has done. Fucking shameful. I expect better from them. Here's what you can do: email info@insidehighered.com and ask them to remove the instructor's and students' names from their story and to take down the graphic of the Facebook page. Hell, copy and paste this entry into that email if you want. That's my plan.

I'll update this entry if and when IHE decides to do the right thing.

That's all.

Comments

I just emailed them to rant a little. Your post moved me to action! Bunch of a-holes.

Done. Thanks for moving me to action too.

I feel for the young instructor who no doubt has been hurt by student immaturity.
This also confirms for me the overall problems of evaluations. Whether public on Facebook or RateMyProfessor or institutional through course evaluations, evaluations stroke our egos or hurt our feelings.
And more than that: the critiques often have no merit. That students can say whether a course or an instructor is valid....it baffles me. Where is the qualification? "This course is boring," "The assignments suck," etc. Who qualified the student to know the value of a course? No one. Where's the so called critical thinking which would put such comments into some kind of context. Not always there, particularly when our pay raises are partly tied to teaching evaluations.
And when we evaluate students, ours are private and marked by our qualifications. Should we post critiques of students online? "This student shows no effort," "This student is never prepared," "This student...." We would be sued.

Thanks for your ongoing coverage of these unfolding events. I've just written a letter to insidehighered asking them to articulate their reasons for revealing these details. Was there a discussion at the magazine about the ethics of such revelations, or was this a thoughtless editorial decision? Just wondering.

Collin poses a valid question: Why publish the details and names on what the students said on Facebook?

In short, we believe that publishing this information was essential for giving a sense of what happened. This article reported on students who said that they were being unfairly punished by Syracuse for criticism of their instructor. Readers can't judge Syracuse's actions without knowing exactly what happened in this Facebook group. Without the detail, this story would have appeared to be simply about Syracuse squelching student critics. Some people still view it that way. But judging from reader reactions, I think the fact that we included detail led some people to believe that these students had gone too far.

Journalistically, this issue comes up in many ways. When one writes about a libel suit, you have to write about what the alleged libel was to explain the suit -- and such references name names. This year, I've extensively covered the David Horowitz controversies. Many academics believe he has unfairly said things that have hurt people's reputations. In reporting on this (involving big name scholars and scholars who are relatively unknown), I've had to report what Horowitz said, and about whom, to explain the issues involved. In fact, when we write about issues having to do with punishment of speech, censorship, etc., and we can't provide detail (usually because we don't have it) on what was said or written, we hear from readers saying "how can I judge?"

I don't want to imply that there aren't issues raised by publishing the material. We used a PDF instead of straight text, in fact, because we didn't want all of the material googled on our site, and because we wanted to give readers a choice about whether to view the potentially offending material, rather than have it thrust in their faces. But generally, publications print names in articles unless we are writing about rape or about minors. The norm is to print names -- readers prefer names to anonymous stories, again so readers can make their own judgments.

I wouldn't say that these issues are black and white -- they aren't. Reasonable people make different calls. But when a university punishes students for something they have written, and those students (along with professors who back them) protest that they are being punished unfairly, the issue becomes newsworthy.

I'm sorry our use of detail struck some as insensitive. If you look at our coverage of this case and of many other issues (RateMyProfessors.com, Horowitz, etc.), I think you'll find that we take the issue of unfair attacks on professors very seriously -- but that we think covering this issue requires detail.

Scott Jaschik
Editor

I'm glad to see Scott Jaschik responding here, and he was also kind enough to respond to my email.of.concern to IHE very quickly.

A couple of things still bug me about the IHE piece: in the interest of full reporting, I think the student group should have been more correctly characterized as one that stated a preference for bestiality, incest, and ingesting communicable diseases over attending the course in question. This would have indicated the magnitude of the slander and, I think, made posting the instructor's name less likely. Only in the context of what the group members said could her "name" be spared; through posting a bowdlerized version of the group's rhetoric, posting the instructor's name becomes feasible.

My own suspicion is that the name of the instructor has been so widely circulated because we tend to think that anything but spectacular teaching (unproven in this case) deserves character assassination.

At my institution, there are several Facebook-mediated student groups that condemn our first-year writing classes -- but none (that I know of) that go after any one instructor. Not yet. We'll have to keep track of them.

I'm curious how IHE actually got this screen grab, just as I'm curious how the story broke in the DO. As I understand it, the Facebook page was taken down immediately after the four women were notified by SU's Judicial Affairs. The person who took this screen grab must have been very close to the incident.

the screenshot is also published here:

http://www.splc.org/newsflash.asp?id=1186&year=

Note that the image cuts off the faces of the group members while featuring the instructor's image prominently. How hard would it have been to simply blurr out the images and names???

Look, it still seems totally pointless to (1) include a screenshot with this woman's picture, (2) use her name (adding to the publicity she's unfortunately receiving), and (3) ASK HER FOR COMMENTS . . . AND THEN "REPORT" THAT SHE "DIDN'T OFFER ANY COMMENTS" TO IHE?" This woman did nothing wrong! Why treat her as if she owes you something, like a comment to IHE? What kind of comment did you expect from her?

Just stick to the "being an assistant professor is soooo hard" columns. You're good at those.