“Students Wrangle with Guns”

That was the front page headline on the Concord (New Hampshire) Monitor, Tuesday, January 17.

One day earlier, Professor Stephen Ambra and I screened the film Good Night and Good Luck about the journalistic stand news icon Edward R. Murrow took against Senator Joseph McCarthy’s 1950s “Red” scare tactics. The film was part of ourContemporary Ethical Issues class at the New Hampshire Technical Institute. The post-film discussion focused on the responsibilities of journalism – both then and now.

At the end of the day, a reporter from the Monitor showed up to interview students regarding pending state legislation that would allow weapons on college campuses throughout the state.“NHTI class debates weapon ban’s end,” writes reporter Sarah Palermo. “Ask an ethics class a question and be prepared for debate. Back and forth, forth and back, students in the applied ethics class at NHTI pondered, debated and postulated…”

Now, I was there when the reporter showed up to interview several students at the end of our scheduled class. She asked permission to speak with the students about the pending gun legislation and Steve and I agreed. However, after reading the article the following day, I decided that this was an opportunity to follow-up on our “responsibility and the press” discussion.

I read the headline and opening and asked students if they found any problems. Several pointed out that the opening implied that the class, as a whole, had a discussion about the gun issue. We had not.

I read through the balance of the story, asking those students who were quoted if their statements were, in fact, accurate. They agreed, however, one student pointed out that the reporter began recording her interview without first asking. “It would have been respectful,” the student said, “if she had asked us first.”

Another student, familiar with reporters, added that “When you see a reporter openly place a recording device in front of you, you know you’re going to be recorded.” Most of the class agreed, but several favored good manners.

Near the end of the news story, however, another student was quoted as saying, “an armed society is a polite society.”

While he acknowledged making the statement, he was concerned. “Those aren’t my feelings. [The reporter] made it sound like I was in favor of the legislation and I’m not!”

Two other individuals confirmed that this was, in fact, a mischaracterization of the student’s position.

“Is anyone familiar,” I asked, “with a newspaper’s policy when it comes to accurately reporting an individual’s statement?”

One student mentioned that she had been an intern at a local paper and that it was important to get both the words and position of anyone interviewed correct.

At the end of our discussion, I pointed out that the article listed the reporter’s email and phone number. “Do you think we should contact the reporter about the inaccuracies?” I asked.

Most of the class agreed, but no one volunteered to write or call. I asked the student who had been misrepresented if he was interested in contacting the reporter.

“No, not really,” he said.

“Would you mind if I did?” I asked.

“No problem.”

Later that day, I spoke with Sarah Palermo at the Monitor and relayed the points made by the class. She listened and thanked me.

The next day, the paper printed a correction regarding the mischaracterization as well as the false impression that the topic was discussed during class. After reading the corrections to the class, they applauded the fact that the reporter promptly corrected the errors.

While the class believed the reporter’s mistake was an honest one, the message was clear: it’s important to hold the media or anyone else accountable for errors whether intentional or not.

 

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