April 8, 2010

Cultivating A Quality Discourse

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This weekend marks the beginning of Cornell Days — the University’s annual attempt to lure already-admitted high school seniors into committing to four years on East Hill. This year, the University has an new obstacle to overcome in the form of negative publicity brought on by last month’s unusually high number of student suicides.

These tragedies, and the understandable attention from the national media that followed, undoubtedly affected Cornell’s public image. Journalism outlets ranging from the Huffington Post to the New York Times made the story front page news. And though we believe that reporting on these events is important, certain elements of the media’s response give us reason to pause.

Due to the University’s reputation as a top-tier academic institution, as well as the very visual nature of how the suicides were carried out, it is understandable that these stories would receive significant media attention. However, there is a fine line between reporting and sensationalizing, between informing the public and aiding in the creation of a false and hazardous mythology. In the aftermath of the campus tragedies, we saw examples of both sensationalism and the exacerbation of the false and hazardous mythology of Ithaca’s gorges.

Such discourse distracts from the real issues that should be discussed in the wake of these suicides — namely, how can we effectively reach out to troubled students? How can we prevent future tragedies? And what does the Cornell community need to do to change the cultural milieu out of which these troubling events occurred?

When New York Magazine’s website publishes a headline that reads: “Cornellians Actually Are Using the Ithaca Gorges for Suicides These Days,” or when former Sun columnist Rob Fishman ’08 elevates Ithaca’s gorges to the level of myth in a lengthy Huffington Post piece detailing Cornell’s long tradition of suicide via gorge jumping, it diverts the community’s attention and hinders our ability to work toward a sustainable solution.

The New York Times’ decision to place its story about the Cornell suicides on the front page similarly glorifies the events. Surely the string of suicides was a significant news story, but was it front page of the New York Times-worthy? The decision to put this story on the front page is grounded more in fascination than newsworthiness.

The tragedy of this insensitive national media coverage is not that it hurts the University’s reputation, but that it derails a dialogue that should be centered around how this university will move forward with a renewed outlook and renewed priorities.

Only when we stop wondering whether or not Cornell is a “suicide school” will we be able to approach these tragedies with the maturity and realism necessary to develop practical and sustainable changes to our popular consciousness.