J-prof’s class material creates controversy

Alison Stephens

Mark Tatge tried to make his Investigative Reporting Techniques class more interesting to DePauw students last week by handing out a 17-page public-records packet on the arrest of one of their peers.

The material on sophomore Alison Stephens included her police incident report, her Facebook and Twitter profiles, court proceedings and other material. (She was arrested in January for public intoxication, minor in consumption, resisting law enforcement and criminal mischief.)

“I guess I could pick something about patent law and have them go look up patent and trademarks,” Tatge tells the DePauw student paper, “but I think they would be less interested in that than they would be about an arrest for drinking [and the other charges].”

A few of Stephens’ friends are in the journalism class and, of course, told her about the packet.

“I feel embarrassed,” she tells The DePauw. “I felt really uncomfortable walking around … I don’t think it reflects the person I am, so I was hurt.” She called her parents, who contacted DePauw’s vice president for student life, who says the school seeks to protect Tatge’s academic freedom while ensuring the welfare of students.

I’ve invited Tatge — a former Forbes, Cleveland Plain Dealer, Denver Post and Wall Street Journal reporter — to comment.

UPDATE: I just talked to Tatge about the matter.

“I used a public record in a classroom to teach students about public records,” he says, “and some students were upset that I did this because they know the student — they’re sorority sisters. ….The students acted emotionally, which I expected — they’re 19- and 20-year-old kids — but I’m a little concerned about the tone and tenor of university’s response. The school has reacted rather emotionally, too, and is trying to recall all of the records I gave to the students.”

Tatge says the material was used in class to show students what’s available to the public. They were not assigned to do a story on Stephens. (Their next assignment was to do a public records search on someone else.)

The visiting professor adds: “I don’t know what’s going to happen at this point. I feel the school is taking the position of the students” who are upset about the material being distributed. “I’ve been offered no support from the administration.”

Tatge says there are two editors of The DePauw in the class, and that he asked them why it took so long for the paper to report on the student’s arrest. The response: “They thought it would be too embarrassing to the student.”

DePauw editor-in-chief Chase Hall tells me: “Our editor did say that [to Tatge] and I think it was the wrong answer.” The story “fell through the cracks” during a change in editors, he says.

* Reporting class sparks controversy over academic freedom

* Award-winning journalist Mark Tatge appointed Pulliam Professor of Journalism

* “If you are serious about becoming a journalist, then you should take Tatge’s classes”

Comments

comments

20 comments
  1. Hmmm. “he asked them why it took so long for the paper to report on the student’s arrest…” — these people live in a place where every student arrest for underage drinking goes into the newspaper?? Really?? Also, I’m not sure this trivial matter will follow this young woman around for the rest of her life, as someone above said. Unless I’m missing something, she can probably complete a probation program and have her record expunged … except from the minds of her classmates who might not have known about it if not for this exercise.
    I’m having trouble figuring out what great journalistic lesson is being taught here. There’s lots of stuff available in public records? How to obtain the records? What, exactly?

  2. personally, I think it’s an excellent way to teach students exactly how much can be gleaned from public records, and in a way that’s sure to stick with them long after they’ve forgotten the girl’s name. it’s a lesson in both how to be a reporter and in how to manage your own reputation so that you don’t become a victim — or at least, minimize the damage. nice work.

  3. Johdus said:

    How about a lesson on accessing public records that are newsworthy or serve a public interest?

    A 19-year-old getting arrested for downing a six pack of PBR, disturbing a bunch of frat boys at 3 a.m. and then drunkenly running away from a patrol car doesn’t quite cut it.

    I think this is no longer a lesson on the magic of FOIA. It’s become a lesson on using discretion in deciding the type of events you feel compelled to report. This girl’s drunken escapade (did it even rise to that level?) is known by everyone on campus and now readers of Romenesko.

    And Jim, was it really necessary to put her photo on your homepage?

    Her record may well be expunged, but this stuff lasts for a long time on the Web.

  4. n smith said:

    You can teach “journalism” by also teaching that journalists have a responsibility to act like decent human beings. This “teacher” merely ambushed and assaulted that girl, and he would not be employed in any newsroom with any sense of common decency.

  5. Emory Platkiss said:

    This girl is not a public figure; there is no compelling public interest in her arrest for misdemeanor D&D. You should not have run her picture or her name on this national website.

    Surely there was a public figure — a city councilman, school board member or some such — who had been arrested and would’ve made a better subject for the professor’s public records lesson.

    While I understand the instructor’s point — public records are just that, public — singling out a 19-year-old out of the blue is pretty jerky. A jerkiness you are compounding with your coverage here.

    The police blotter at my paper only prints the names of felony or gross misdemeanor arrestees, on the grounds that the humiliation of being in the paper and on the Internet (presumably forever) is too great for a minor offense.

  6. Jake said:

    McMichael demonstrates why Military Times is the shell it once was.

    Apologists ignore the fact she wasn’t just arrested for underage drinking, there was resisting and criminal mischief. That should be news on any campus paper.

    And it appears Tatge didn’t even use FOIA, just gathered up accessible public records and the public stuff the kids themselves put online.

    Welcome to real journalism, kids.

  7. jrhmobile said:

    Delving into the public records and background of some poor college sophomore who got busted for drinking a couple of beers is Bush League. These students need a real investigative challenge. They should be researching someone more relevant than some poor tipsy college student. They need real meat.

    Give them a more relevant challenge. A real-world exercise.

    They should be looking for all the public records and personal history they can find on somebody who’s suddenly found themselves to be a public figure. Someone of substance, with an extensive history where they can ferret deeply into that person’s life and mindset. Someone who would provide them with a far better story to tell. Someone with a rich, lengthy background offering a wide ranging, extensive exercise in investigative research. Someone who would offer a fertile sea of information for eager, enterprising J-school students to go fishing for any and every detail of that person’s past. And as the instructor has clearly pointed out, they should be publishing the results of what they find in the student newspaper — no matter how embarrassing it would be to the source — because it would be relevant information for the entire campus.

    Someone like, say, Mark Tatge. In fact, exactly like Mark Tatge. It should be Mark Tatge. And when they’re done, they could put it on a plaque and frame it up as nicely as the one that this J-school retread drew tightly around some hapless little coed.

  8. I think the exercise was precisely the kind of thing these kids need to experience. I also wonder why, over the years, newspapers have become so sensitive about people becoming embarrassed — after they broke the law. The young woman ought to be embarrassed — not about the publicity, but about her own actions and the consequences she faces for doing what she did.

  9. Randy Ludlow said:

    To unearth my Facebook post:

    What Romenesko failed to mention in his post is that the woman in question is a member of the women’s basketball team, with university policy forbidding athletes from illegal use of alcohol. The arrests of student-athletes typically warrant news coverage since they are representatives of the university and typically are afforded financial considerations not granted normal students. This does, for the purpose of the Tatge exercise, make her more of a “public” figure. Should we ignore the arrests of college athletes? A few years ago at Ohio U., I found 17 football players had been arrested in nine months. Their punishment from OU? Studying in coach’s office. Story prompted reforms and defined punishments that coaches cannot set aside. A story for DePauw paper? What is prevalance of arrests (and compare to student body as whole) of student-athlete arrests and what punishment do they receive?

  10. Dave Barnes said:

    As Scott McNealy famously said: You have no privacy, get over it.

  11. Nancy Imperiale said:

    Well said, jrhmobile! That whole class should now drill down into the life of Mark Tatge, hard. Bet they’ll find lots of embarrassing material. But don’t worry, Prof — it’s just an exercise.

  12. Wow, some of these comments are shocking. Journalism doesn’t do justice, it does truth. Yes, there are grey areas as to what is and is not relevant, but unearthing uncomfortable facts for public consideration is the name of the game.

  13. Del Boca Vista said:

    I’m having a hard time understanding how this is remotely newsworthy. College student drinks, makes a mistake. Sounds like 99 percent of us at some point in our lives.

    People taking the “I’m a journalist and I have a right to information” high road on this are being absurd, and I’m sure they’d feel much different if they were on the other end of this.

    As if there aren’t a million more important things that aren’t being covered right now. As if we need more stupidity like this making us all look vapid and petty.

  14. Nancy Imperiale said:

    I want to hug your comment, rknill.
    What is this “truth” journalists love to stand up for? Your truth? Her truth? My truth? Truth is an elusive creature, and so many ambitious, ignorant journalists get ahold of one kernel of it and think they have the whole cob. Meanwhile, lives are destroyed. Instead of yammering on about truth, how about we discuss the real issue here — ethics.

  15. Don Lee said:

    Most of the later commenters are missing an important point: No story was assigned. The lesson was how much is available, easily, from public records and public forums. Back in my working-reporter days, I quickly became dismayed to see how much information was available for the taking about anyone, without even having to jump through too many hoops. I continue to be dismayed by the amount of personal information available, often put willingly there by people who don’t get that social media is pretty much a public forum. Frankly, I hope (I’m not going to get into the whole “probably” nonsense that commenters are using to bolster this viewpoint or that) this was accompanied by a discussion of “should,” a discussion in which many of the younger reporters I worked with more recently clearly did not take part.

  16. Mark Hodapp said:

    The new story on this student just ell through the cracks? Athletes get breaks other students do not get. She was almost threee times the legal limit and creating a disturbance – sound like legitimate news to me. Probably would not have included the Facebook or Twitter stuff, but it is news because she is an athlete. I have been writing these types of stories for 35 years.

  17. Anonymous said:

    She broke the law. She should be embarrassed. She’ll recover. It was a great lesson. Stop babying these young adults. There’s nothing unethical about presenting public records.

  18. Arthur said:

    I like to think of myself as a natural consequence. In other words, if you go out and do something stupid/illegal, you’ve given me permission to write about it.

  19. Mike Fancher said:

    Two of the core values of most modern journalism ethics codes, such as SPJ’s, are:
    – Seek the truth and report it.
    – Minimize harm.
    The tension between these values is obvious. Research indicates “minimizing harm” isn’t clearly understood as a journalistic value.
    This situation seems like a teachable moment for everyone involved.

  20. Arthur said:

    The SPJ code says “minimize” harm, not eliminate it completely. Most of the harm here was self-inflicted by the drunken student. She chose a course of action, and has to live with the consequences, intended and unintended.