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U.S. university reverses suspension of journalism student after public outcry

The State University of New York at Oswego drew criticism this week after it suspended – and later readmitted – a journalism undergrad student for misidentifying himself when contacting sources for a school assignment, Poynter reported. Many observers considered the response overly harsh.

Last month, Alex Myers, an Australian exchange student, contacted several hockey coaches by e-mail for a story on SUNY Oswego hockey coach Ed Gosek. In his e-mails, Myers identified himself as a member of the university’s office of public affairs, where he had recently interned. According to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), Myers sent out the following e-mail:

My name is Alex Myers, I work for the Office of Public Affairs at SUNY Oswego.

I am currently writing a profile on Oswego State Hockey head coach Ed Gosek and was hoping to get a rival coaches view on Mr Gosek.

If you have time would you mind answering the following questions.

1. How do you find Mr Gosek to coach against?

2. Have you had any interactions with Mr Gosek off the ice? If so how did you find him?

3. What is your rivalry like between your school and Oswego State?

Be as forthcoming as you like, what you say about Mr Gosek does not have to be positive. 

One of the recipients, Cornell coach Michael Schafer wrote back and called that last line “offensive,” said FIRE's Will Creely in a column for The Huffington Post. The next day, SUNY Oswego President Deborah Stanley delivered a letter to Myers informing him he had been placed on interim suspension from the university and had to leave his dormitory that afternoon. He was charged with “dishonesty” and “disruptive behavior,” which includes defamation, harassment, intimidation and threats.

Myers sought help from FIRE, which wrote a letter SUNY’s Stanley challenging the university’s charges against Myers.

“To be clear: SUNY Oswego’s allegation that Myers’ emails could constitute defamation, threats, intimidation, or harassment is without merit, and all charges stemming from this allegation must be dismissed,” FIRE’s letter said.

According to Poynter, the university later readmitted Myers and, as an alternative punishment, asked him to write an apology to coach Gosek and his choice between an article for the school paper or an essay for one of his courses explaining what he had learned from the experience.

In his Huffington Post column, Creely defended Myers by saying: “Like any journalism major worth his or her notepad, Alex Myers […] was just trying to get a few good quotes.”

Nick Graziano, managing editor of SUNY’s student newspaper The Oswegonian, told Poynter: “A lot of people, especially myself, think it was an overreaction by the school. He made a mistake by saying he was with the Office of Public Affairs. I feel like I’ve seen worse cases than that. I’ve seen people make up quotes before, and all they had to do was write an apology letter.”

According to FIRE, “universities around the country have shown a dangerous tendency to conflate protected speech with unprotected true threats” in recent years.

1 comment

Mary Mares wrote 5 years 16 weeks ago

Jounalistic integrity

This student was clearly in the wrong when he misrepresented himself. Journalists of all people must be forthright in identifying themselves. Only in situations when working undercover, as part of an investigative story, is it occasionally acceptable for journalists not to directly identify themselves. This was a straight forward story – a profile, noting undercover about it. Also, why is the student emailing questions? The whole idea of getting truthful answers in an interview and avoiding contrived, PR style answers is not to prompt the interviewee ahead of time. It’s okay to tell the subject what the focus of the interview will be, but it’s not acceptable to just hand over the questions. That’s okay in PR practice, but it’s not journalism.
Journalism students must learn to adhere to a code of honor and journalistic ethics. I spent a year overseas as a Fulbright scholar teaching journalism courses. I was appalled at some of the stories my students told me about journalistic practices that go on. Some of these include journalist right out lying to the public, making up quotes, taking bribes and seeing nothing wrong with it…and the list goes on. In the US, press freedoms are protected under the constitution. We must not abuse those rights nor take them for granted. This student, especially being a foreign exchange student, need to learn the right way to do journalism. I agree with the university’s position. Perhaps expelling him was a bit harsh, but this was a serious offense, and the student needs to pay the consequence. We must teach journalism students ethics. We must teach them that as journalists they can’t take sides or misrepresent themselves just to get a story. We must teach them that the main purpose of journalism is to serve as an agent of checks and balances between the public and those in power. Journalist can’t do that if they lose credibility by lying, twisting the story or misrepresenting themselves. If we fail to teach that, we contribute to the lowering of journalistic standards and shortchanging those who have the right to know the truth – the public.
Finally, this issue has nothing to do with the university showing “a dangerous tendency to conflate protected speech with unprotected true threats” , but everything to do with teaching students not to lie. And in response to the Huffington Post quote, like any journalist worth his notepad, its fine for the journalism student to get a few quotes, but he needs to learn to do it right.

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