Tag Archives: media

“stir up the animals” the role of media in terrorist suspects

Today we discussed the role of the media in light of the Boston Marathon bombings (full disclosure, my husband works in Boston. His office is feet from the finish line, which is now a crime scene, so Tuesday was a rough day to teach.  I find that coming to the classroom helps me process, and I find such joy here).

One student noted that it was irresponsible for the media to release suspect ethnicities and possibly incite hatred until the facts were correct.  This marries with our recent discussion of Hearst and Pulitzer and yellow journalism and muckraking.


As I drove to work the DJs were screaming.  I was tuned to a station coming out of South Carolina and a woman was accusing the DJ of hate mongering as the DJ was repeating news he heard on CNN about the ethic background of a suspect.  The DJ yelled that he was simply repeating what CNN said.

It is notable that The FBI made no mention of the men’s height, weight or age range and would not discuss the men’s ethnicity. “It would be inappropriate to comment on the ethnicity of the men because it could lead people down the wrong path potentially,” said FBI agent Greg Comcowich, a spokesman for the Boston FBI office.

Yet, a source confirmed to FoxNews.com on Tuesday April 16th that “the person of interest is a 20-year-old Saudi. His Facebook page identifies him as a current or former student at the New England School of English. He is believed to have entered the country on a student visa. The source stressed that Alharbi is a person of interest, not a suspect, and said he suffered serious injuries in the explosion.”

Damage done.  Posts on the website FrontPageMag include comments inciting hatred against Saudi Arabians.

The problem is that in the digital age, you can’t take back an accusation.  One false bit of information on a media outlet is repeated on blogs and facebook and twitter until it becomes the Truth.  When an apology is made or a retraction, it does not filter down to those levels. The original supposition remains true in many eyes.

I’ve always put muckrakers on a pedestal.  I believe in the media as the 4th estate and as blogs as the 5th estate.  We hold the powerful accountable.  We help break news, but we should not be making the news. One famous quote is that reporters are the only people other than emergency responders who run towards the crises. But, in the urgency to report, to scoop, to inform are we doing a disservice to say “It is believed that….”

So, what does the media do?  Do we wait until all sources are verified?  Roosevelt tempered his praise for muckrakers with this. “Now, it is very necessary that we should not flinch from seeing what is vile and debasing. There is filth on the floor, and it must be scraped up with the muck rake; and there are times and places where this service is the most needed of all the services that can be performed. But the man who never does anything else, who never thinks or speaks or writes, save of his feats with the muck rake, speedily becomes, not a help but one of the most potent forces for evil.”

Mencken was famous for wanting to “stir up the animals” and he said that “a newspaper should tell the truth, however unpleasant.”  Agreed, but when does the truth become the truth and not speculation? Can we harm an individual or group by releasing speculation and can we harm an individual or group but withholding speculation?


The Quadrangle of Discomfort

Flashback one semester

The college I teach at is very small. Think 900ish students. As such, the community is quite insular (not in a negative way).  The nature of the college (a triad of work, service and academics) further strengthens community ties. The students study together, pull weeds on the farm together, play together, dine together, spend weekends on service learning trips.  There are assigned dorms, but few seem to be in the correct room. The intensity with which the lives of the students are entwined is apparent in their essays, their class comments, the way a student hugs another student after a peer review.

Thus, sometimes it may be difficult to assign peer rotation of papers, especially in a nonfiction class.  Especially when the first assignment is a bio, an exercise in self-exploration.

“I’ll call it the quadrangle of discomfort,” says one student.  He has grabbed a dry erase marker and is drawing a diagram on my whiteboard.  Class is dismissed, and I’ve turned on WERS, streaming live from Boston, my old college radio station.  The student stands at the board, creating a geometric pattern as the Foo Fighters blare out over the classroom speakers,

“Do you have any other colored markers?” he asks.

I hand him red and green to add to his blue.

When he is complete it looks like an awkward pentagram, a Venn on steroids.  There are loops and squares. I’m still uncertain what he is drawing.

“Okay, Professor Hunter,” he says.  He is one of the few who insists on calling me simply “Professor Hunter” and not by my first name.  I’ve had this student in two classes already.  I know him well.  It’s fun to see him at the board, mimicking my job.

“What you have done,” he continues, “is assign these personal bios in the worst possible peer rotation.”

This is not the first time an uncomfortable peer rotation has happened.  One of my first years here brought a similar situation.  A student had grabbed a sheet of paper or napkin and detailed how the peers I had assigned had all been very close, but that the relationships were in flux, were currently strained or evolving.  That time it was a trio, and the student had drawn similar lines, but nothing as complex as the diagram now on my whiteboard.

Peer rotation is my nightmare.  When I earned my MFA, apparently, all of my math skills evaporated. In went Hemingway and Lahiri; out went macroeconomics. In went Winesburg Ohio and San Lorenzo; out went fractions. I am faced with creating a rotation for my students so that they do not have the same peer read their work more than once a semester.  I was happy with the foursome that I chose.  It was one of the first days, so I just lumped four students together into a peer group.

My student continues to explain his problem.  “Of these four students, you assigned two who were rooming together but then she dated his friend, and then she moved out and now he is with….” He is pointing to his drawing of overlapping circles and lines. The drama that has unfolded is, apparently, intense.

“Well then,” I say.  “You will certainly be able to have the…”  Here, I struggle with the word.  “Backstory to read one another’s work.”  I smile and add “Have fun with it!”


So many terrible wonderful stories


As we explore political commentary in my media class, I ask my students to have a daily diet of news. NPR, BBC, HuffPo, conservative talk radio, NYT, Esquire politics blog. As long as it is news. I want them to read, absorb, challenge, gain passion.  I hope this becomes a lifelong habit, exploring the world.

logo-foxnews-update               bbc-logo

We will explore “the fictional current that flows beneath the stream of reality.”
-Gay Talese
In order to discover that fictional current, we need to seek out competing opinions…but first, we need to find a story, just one, that will create enough passion to want to seek out more.
As I went around the classroom, asking what news the students had discovered, I was met with a few tidbits.  Certainly, the meteor and the Pope were discussed. And, a few students found some off-the-beaten-path-news.  We had a small impassioned discussion about recent comments made by an Alabama representative.  The class was engaged… but not on fire.
Cut to a peer review.  As students broke into pairs to review their recent community narratives, one student came over to my desk, laptop open, clearly excited.  She showed me a story, and we scrolled to the comments.  There was an air of can-you-believe-this in her tone, and then she said something that every professor of media longs to hear.
“There are so many wonderful, terrible statements in the news today.  I had a hard time picking just one.”
There. Engaged. Passionate.  Ready to write.
So, my assignment for Thursday was for all of my students to arrive
having found “wonderful, terrible” stories.

Why we write (part three)…the student musings continue


When asked “why do you write” in my college media class, students have some thoughtful answers:

1.”I write to heal myself.”

2. I’m the daughter of a language teacher.  It is in my epigenetic scheme. I write on napkins and coffee cups.”

3. I like to explain things in detail.  A lot of time in academia, even thinking about writing helps you develop ideas.”

4. This next comment needs quite a preface. I assign an interview piece each term. Students share successes and struggles as they navigate the terrain of speaking with someone else, of recoding another person, of having that person back up their assertions or challenge their assertions.  Often, they seek out experts. One student wrote an article on green burials.  When I asked “why do you write”, she noted, “I’m looking for a way to spend more time talking to funeral directors.”

The Spiderman Lunchbox Controversy, or the Perils of Being a Writer

Last week we discussed the PERILS of being a writer, not just any writer, but a writer for the media. I am the faculty supervisor for our college newspaper as well as a professor of media, and this question organically arose one day.  One true peril of being a journalist is that our words are out there in the public domain, available for consumption and scrutiny.  I use an example of a “harmless” article written by a staffer at our local paper, the Asheville Citizen Times, over 2 years ago.  The article can be found here and is titled innocuously, “As schools reopen in Asheville area, think outside the lunchbox”


The article’s premise is simple and can be found in the 1st two paragraphs.

“Before you have children, the thought of packing a kid’s lunchbox may seem like a no-brainer. But when you’re trying to feed your child in a healthy way day after day, week after week, year after year, the allure of PB&J quickly diminishes, and the risk of trading for Twinkies increases.With a little creativity and a system of rotating favorite foods so they never get boring, it’s possible to pack the lunchbox or brown bag with nutritious offerings that will keep your child fortified throughout the school day.”

Yet, the comments from this article range from the the commercial: “So now you’re promoting lunchboxes? A lot of parents can’t afford them.”  to the highly political: “A lot of parents can’t afford their children anyways. The kids should be taken away and given to people who can afford them. Mandatory birth control should be given to poor people so they don’t reproduce and create additional problems for those that do provide.”

I dub this “the Spiderman Lunchbox Conspiracy” and it serves a cautionary tale to my undergraduates. Thick skin, I preach…Thick skin.

Oh, and here is a link to some of the more colorful comments.spiderman comments


I splash the below powerpoint up on the first day of every class. I patterned it after the TV ratings.

This is my effort to coax the students into a mature response when we discuss media matters.  Gay marriage amendments should not bring about giggles nor should a congressmen texting photos of his penis. (okay, maybe a few giggles allowed there).  But, as I reflect on my teaching methods, I think I use this slide as an excuse for when I swear so much in class…  “I told you there would be mature language.”