November 21, 2010

Stirring the Pot

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Two bits of Sun coverage last week sparked reader reaction worthy of addressing: an anti-Goldman Sachs column and the coverage of a student death.

Goldman Reaction

Associate Editor Tony Manfred ’11 certainly stirred the pot with his Nov. 17 column, “Throw Goldman Sachs Off Campus.” Manfred penned a vituperative, rhetorically impassioned takedown of the investment bank, calling the entity, among other things, “criminals” and “money-grubbing.”

Reaction to his column came in a deluge. Anonymous commenters went back and forth on The Sun’s website. A reporter on The New York Times’ Dealbook blog used Manfred’s column as a springboard for a short piece on the Ivy League’s relationship with Goldman. Blogs on CNBC and New York Magazine linked to Manfred’s piece. So did the IvyGate Blog and a blog on Business Insider’s site.

(Manfred is nominally my editor, but when I write about him, another top editor will go over my piece instead. Manfred also does not edit his own column, even though he oversees the opinion section. Arts & Entertainment Editor Peter Jacobs ’13, who edits opinion columns in his own section, takes care of that.)

Much of the discourse in the blogosphere debated or mocked the merits of Manfred’s piece. I don’t have anything to add in that respect, but I do want to address a few points presented to me in an e-mail from an alumnus, Chris Bonn ’94.

Bonn was curious if Manfred’s statements represented his own opinion, The Sun’s or Cornell University’s as a whole. The answer to that is simply that Manfred’s opinions — as all columnists’ — are his own and cannot be attributed to anyone else, especially The Sun as a whole or Cornell. Although Manfred supervises the opinion section, his column runs with his name and his face; I think it’s clear that his opinions as presented in that context are his alone.

Bonn also noted that in the classes he took when at Cornell, writers “were not allowed to call someone a criminal unless they had actually been charged with a crime.” In this instance, the Justice Department pursued a criminal investigation of Goldman Sachs but no one has been convicted of anything.

If this were a news story, I would absolutely agree with Bonn. In that context, people are “criminals” only when they have been investigated, charged and convicted of a crime. In fact, calling people “criminals” when they are not can be considered defamatory in some contexts. The law is not perfectly settled on this, but it seems that Manfred was not presenting his column as factual news but as pure opinion. That kind of printed speech — pure opinion — is usually not considered defamatory.

The merits of what Manfred wrote are beyond the scope of this column. But the journalistic processes are well within it. I think that The Sun made no journalistic missteps in having Manfred’s column run the way it did.

Balancing Sensitivity and Facts

I received a letter from Anna Brawley grad in response to the coverage of the death of Ryan Crowder grad. Brawley was reasoned but critical, saying that the way Crowder died “adds a layer of suffering for people coping with their loss” and that the way the Nov. 17 front-page story was presented “would likely be upsetting.”

“I guess my main complaint with [the story] was that it was featured on the front page,” Brawley stated, “and written to be kind of a sensational piece (in the headline, mostly).” The headline read, “Crowder, Grad, Was Stabbed in Nicaragua.”

I agree that there is a heightened need for careful reporting, given the nature of these events. (I have written on student deaths before — notably, that they should be reported judiciously and sensitively, and that a cause of death should be given whenever possible.) That said, I think the story was necessary as written, for one major reason. The initial reporting on the death, from Nov. 16, indicated that “violence was involved.” The source of that quote was the chairwoman of the natural resources department, Prof. Marianne Krasny.

That Nov. 16 story broke the news, but Krasny’s quote elicited an additional question. Ongoing coverage of news events should rarely, if ever, raise more questions than it answers. In this case, the “violence was involved” quote is the kind of thing that incites questions in readers’ minds and merits further coverage.

That further coverage turned out to be the details reported in El Nuevo Diario, a Nicaraguan newspaper. While it’s not ideal for a newspaper to rely on another one for reporting, I think The Sun was somewhat forced here — it’s not like the paper has the resources to send someone down to Nicaragua to report this. The Sun, however, was careful in noting what it had gotten from another paper and what it had gotten from its own reporting.

I think the headline, though, is very direct. The headline writer was no doubt trying to play it straight and be as factual as possible, but I can see that it might come across as blunt and insensitive, especially to someone who knew Crowder personally. In hindsight, a headline like “Report: Student Stabbed in Nicaragua” might have been better: a presentation like that would have taken Crowder’s name out of the headline and also conveyed the idea that the information was first reported elsewhere.

Brawley made some other observations that I simply do not have space to include, but I will say I appreciate that her criticisms were respectful and well thought out. I would encourage anyone with something constructive to say to contact me about The Sun’s coverage, positive or negative.

Rob Tricchinelli is a third-year student in the Law School and also holds a master’s degree in journalism from the University of Maryland. He can be reached at public-editor@cornellsun.com. The public editor column typically appears alternate Mondays this semester.

Original Author: Rob Tricchinelli