Questionable Teaching Method Or Valuable Journalism Lesson?

By Benét J. Wilson, DJTF chair, freelance aviation/travel journalist and blogger

Yesterday, NABJ Student Representative Wesley Lowery posted a story by Jim Romenesko on the allegedly questionable teaching method used by DePauw University Professor Mark Tatge. Tatge, a former reporter for newspapers including the Wall Street Journal.

Tatge teaches an investigative reporting class, and during a recent session, he handed out “a 17-page public-records packet on the arrest of one of their peers,” writes Romenesko. The student was Alison Stephens, a sophomore basketball player, and the packet, all pulled from public records, included her Facebook and Twitter profiles — and a police incident report after being arrested for “public intoxication, minor in consumption, resisting law enforcement and criminal mischief,’ he writes.

And here’s where it got interesting.  Some of Stephens’ friends were in the class and told her about the exercise.  She was embarrassed about her record and upset with the exercise, going as far as calling her parents, who, in turn, called the VP of student life at DePauw.

The university appears to be siding with Stephens. Two of the students in Tatge’s class are editors for the school newspaper, and they admitted that they didn’t run the story because they didn’t want to embarrass Stephens.

In my comment on Romenesko’s Facebook page, I noted that situations like Stephens’ are part of the job of journalism — reporting the good, the bad and the ugly. The students need to learn early that feelings are going to be hurt, and I commended Professor Tatge for giving them a real-life example of what they’re going to face in their careers.

The comments are split on whether Tatge should have used Stephens and whether Romenesko should have used her name and picture in his story.I’m of the view that if it’s in the public record, then it’s fair game. And we all know how private Twitter and Facebook are.

It’s tough and I do feel bad for Stephens, but she has to understand that her own actions created the public record Tatge was able to use in his class. I didn’t do anything wild in college, but  had friends who did. But back then, there was no Facebook, Twitter, cell phone cameras or Internet. There was much more leeway to do dumb things and not have them follow you.

But the times have changed — drastically. And sadly, with the nature of how many public records are so easily attainable these days, Stephens’ records are  something that will always follow her long after she’s left the protective arms of DePauw and her parents.

So, what do you think? Did Tatge go too far, or did he teach his and other journalism students a valuable, real-life lesson?

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2 responses to “Questionable Teaching Method Or Valuable Journalism Lesson?

  1. Interestingly enough, Tatge’s real world exercise has created a real world classroom in which his lesson is impacting many more “students” far outside of the campus of DePauw University. Whatever one may say about Tatge’s tactic, it grabbed everyone’s attention inside that classroom and now across the industry. Lessons will most assuredly be gleaned from the discussions initiated by Tatge’s lesson. I suspect the teacher will learn as much as his students. .

  2. Tatge taught a tough lesson about public figures, public records and media coverage. The student profiled is on the school’s basketball team and the arrests were all public info. I’m sure it shocked the students seeing how their online profiles will be on display if they break the law. Facebook and Twitter are go to sources for a “perp pic” or victim memorial. Just ask Bowie State University’s Alexis D. Simpson, 19, who fatally stabbed 18-year-old Dominique T. Frazier. http://www.washingtonpost.com/local/woman-found-fatally-stabbed-at-bowie-state/2011/09/15/gIQAQRG0VK_story.html . Tweets before the stabbing played a serious part in the investigation. Makes you think twice about breaking the law and what you post online.

    I just wonder if the lesson was worth hitting so close to home. DePauw University is a college setting with boosters and influential donors. Tatge taught his students a great journalism (and life) lesson. But if he ticked off the wrong people he may personally learn a painful professional lesson from the academic world.

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