In Reporting Class, DePauw Professor’s Use of a Student’s Public Records Spurs Debate & an Investigation (#acpsea)

It has quickly become the most hotly-debated journalism lesson so far in 2012.  Late last month in an advanced reporting class, a DePauw University visiting journalism professor passed out a student-athlete’s public records– including her social media profiles and reports related to a recent arrest– for a session on accessing documents.  It has spurred complaints from some of his own students and a subsequent ongoing imbroglio with DePauw administrators.

The gist, as reported by The DePauw, the student newspaper at the Indiana school: “In [a recent] Investigative Reporting Techniques class, which teaches journalism students how to access public information, [Mark] Tatge passed out a 17-page packet detailing the Jan. 27 arrest of sophomore Alison Stephens.  The front three pages were Stephens’ Facebook and Twitter profiles, available online.  Other documents included her booking record, permission to travel out of state, her father’s drivers license, police incident report and other court proceedings.  Tatge said that he chose the case to present because it was local, a breaking news story and involved a peer.”

The initial reaction: “[S]ome students were uncomfortable discussing a fellow DePauw student, particularly one who had been arrested.  Four students in the seminar are in the same sorority as Stephens, Pi Beta Phi. A member of the men’s basketball team was also in the class, another connection to Stephens who plays on the women’s team.  News of the class traveled fast.”

One camp is criticizing Tatge for being crass, singling out and further embarrassing a student who has already had a tough semester (including an arrest on charges of public intoxication, minor in consumption, resisting law enforcement, and criminal mischief).  The university is investigating whether the packet’s distribution created “a hostile learning environment” for the student or her peers.

As the mother of Alison Stephens wrote to the DePauw, “The fact that a visiting professor would chose a current student’s records to teach investigative journalism is an assault to everyone on campus.  Each student on campus is subject to the whim of whether a professor may or may not want to target them as the next ‘subject’.  The lesson being taught could have been made just as strongly without harming a 19-year-old student.”

The other camp argues Tatge was well within his rights to utilize the records– all of which are public– and deserves kudos for attempting to present a records sampling relatable to students.  In Tatge’s words, “I guess I could pick something about patent law and have them go look up patent and trademarks, but I think they would be less interested in that than they would be about an arrest for drinking [and the other charges].”

The bottom-line argument, from this perspective: Journalism, even in the classroom, is a real-world endeavor.  As the top Facebook comment on a related post asks, “So, investigative reporting for beginners should exist of fantasy exercises, duck any use of public records and forgo any lessons that your reporting– the truth– will hurt feelings, create controversy and generate criticism?”

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