September 27, 2012

Last Call for Legitimate Journalism

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Today I’m going to take a step away from my usual academic-life in vet school theme to write about Courtney Rubin’s New York Times article about college bars that made a little splash late Wednesday night. I’m taking off my vet-student cap for the first part of this article and writing from the perspective of a 2011 Cornell alumna.

First, let’s talk about the fact-checking failure (first reported by the blog IvyGate). I was a news staff writer for The Sun for all four years of undergrad, and the concept of fact-checking was drilled into my head from the very beginning. People get angry when you spell their name wrong or misquote them or misrepresent their organization, because even if you’re just spending an hour writing about them, you’re often writing about topics that they’ve devoted their whole lives to. They take what you write personally because it’s often also read by all of their peers; so if you’re going to write something contentious, the least you can do is make sure the facts are right. Then the editors serve as backup for further fact checking, but if there are any mistakes people will blame you and not the editors.

So the fact that Rubin, the photographer and the editors of the New York Times didn’t bother to fact check the names at least is puzzling to me. Looking up Cornell affiliated names is even easier than a Google search — all you have to do is enter the person’s name on cornell.edu. It’s true that students can opt out of being in the directory, but I’ve never actually run across someone who did and it would be highly suspicious if a whole group of people weren’t in it. Even if you didn’t know about the Cornell directory, just Googling the person’s name and the word “Cornell” should be sufficient. Try it with your own name (put your full name in quotes).  Cornell students are go-getters and do things; by the time they’re seniors there is usually some record affiliating them with Cornell.

Fact checking aside, let’s talk about the topic of the article. The headline makes it sound like it’s about the demise of college bars. This is a valid topic, I suppose, although it surprises me that the Times thinks it’s important enough to devote an entire article to. It’s true that in our smartphone dominated world, you’re constantly connected to both your friends and strangers and don’t need to frequent bars as often to hang out. I think this was supposed to be the point of this article, but it’s lost in the derisive tone the author adopts towards the college lifestyle. The not-so-subtle jibes at sorority girls with Hermés bracelets, 16 shot drinks (no mention that these are usually shared amongst a group of friends over a period of time) and the pre-gaming / hook-up culture seem to be the author venting frustration more than informing readers about anything at all.

I’ll take a minute to address the insults anyways. We’re led to believe that excessive drinking is something that college kids do irresponsibly for fun. I have several friends working in the corporate world, however, and it seems to me that once you graduate drinking becomes something that you’re expected to do in order to advance in your career. It’s not appropriate to criticize college drinking without offering alternatives especially when the “real world” can be even worse. It would have been appropriate to criticize underage drinking, but the author wasn’t even aware that this was an issue. As for the “meat markets”… How can you realistically expect thousands of 21 year olds to want to commit to serious monogamous relationships (because isn’t that the alternative?) when they don’t even know what state they’re going to be in eight months from now?

So, time for me to be a vet student again. You probably noticed that the main picture associated with the article states that it’s of two Cornell Veterinary students. I thought the article was about the undergraduate lifestyle? Did someone not realize that veterinary students are graduate students? It’s like writing an article about elementary school and posting a picture of high school students.

The biggest issue I have with the picture though is that it implies that these students commonly participate in the activities that the author writes so vitriolically about. Even though I’ve already talked about how I don’t have a problem with the lifestyle, I would like to set the record straight and confirm that even if we want to relive our college years, vet school does not allow time for drinking and going out on a regular basis (if these were the things that were most important to us we would have picked another career). We bemoan Ithaca’s lack of nightlife for grad students, but the truth of the matter is even if there were bars that were close and full of primarily grad students, we wouldn’t have time to go to them anyways.

I can tell you that those students were only at Level B that night because they had just completed a strenuous two day long exam. I can also tell you that they specifically asked (via email, even) that the pictures not be published. I know that the paper is not legally obligated to abide by their request, but these are not famous people who are used to having paparazzi post pictures of them (well, they’re not famous yet … in my completely humble opinion, Cornell vets often do great things). They’re hard-working graduate students who don’t need to have future employers find this when they’re applying for jobs in a couple of years.

I was disappointed in Rubin’s article because it’s the kind of journalism that gives reporters a bad reputation — unashamed about being biased, half-researched and unnecessarily antagonistic. This is the first time that I’ve ever thought that the crisis newspapers are facing in terms of readership and accessibility might actually be due in part to the newspapers themselves and not just the electronic world that we live in.

Nikhita Parandekar graduated from Cornell in 2011 and is a second-year veterinary student in the Cornell College of Veterinary Medicine. She may be reached at nparandekar@cornellsun.com. Hoof in Mouth appears alternate Fridays this semester.

Original Author: Nikhita Parandekar