Rutgers Student Journalist Secretly Recorded AD’s Controversial Talk: Unethical or OK?

Immediately after another round of massive layoffs at Newark’s Star-Ledger, news broke that Rutgers University athletic director Julie Hermann had “stood up in front of a class of journalism students a few weeks ago and said it would be ‘great’ if the newspaper died.”

During a stint that so far has been mired in gaffes and scandals, the embattled AD has had a contentious relationship with the paper — all news media, really. She is even convinced one Star-Ledger columnist is literally bent on ensuring she is fired.

Hermann visited a Rutgers media ethics and law class in February. As a featured guest speaker, she engaged in “a wide-ranging discussion” with students “in an informal way and out of the glare of the media spotlight.”

Or not. The talk was on the record, according to instructor Bruce Reynolds. Simon Galperin is a student in the class. He is also managing editor of Muckgers, a  student-run online news start-up whose name meshes Rutgers and muckraking.

Galperin recorded the talk. He reported on it in a Muckgers post. And he shared the recording with Steve Politi — the Star-Ledger columnist Hermann believes is out to get her.

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Soon after, Politi wrote a column combining the Star-Ledger layoffs with the death-wish Hermann had directed at the paper. His take: “Hermann has been a human PR nightmare since taking the job, and the response from Rutgers officials has been to dig in deeper in their support. Maybe that’s why Hermann is rooting for reporters and editorial writers to lose their jobs — they are the only ones who seem to be holding her accountable. … I’m betting [a majority of readers] will see her comments as what they are: Unbefitting a person in a high-profile position at a major university.”

From a journalism angle, was it also unbefitting of Galperin to record Hermann’s talk, seemingly without her knowledge or permission?

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Galperin’s perspective: “I haven’t had anyone of particular interest speak in one of my courses since I took on the position of managing editor for Muckgers. If, in the case of another public figure coming in to speak about topics relevant to the student body, I don’t see why I wouldn’t kill two birds with one stone and execute an assignment for the class and then publish it for Muckgers.”

Apparently this execution goes against a recommendation made in 2012 by the university senate, which states, “The university should prohibit the audio-visual recording, transmission or distribution of classroom lectures and discussions unless expressed written permission … from the class instructor has been obtained and all students in the class as well as guest speakers have been informed that audio/video recording may occur.”

Hmm. That’s quite a limitation. It’s just a recommendation though, not an actual rule. And it’s not something Reynolds or Galperin even knew about before this hubbub unfolded.

But according to Reynolds, that doesn’t make Galperin’s recording-reporting decision entirely OK. As he tells The Daily Targum student newspaper, “What Simon did was not unethical, but there is a difference between being unethical and unprincipled, and Simon was unprincipled. If you do journalism, do it honestly and let people know that you’re going to record and that you’re going to use the information that you record to do a story.”

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Former Targum sports editor Josh Bakan is more unabashed in his criticism: “Muckgers’ coverage of the issue was unethical. Congratulations, Galperin. You got your 15 minutes. But Muckgers should consider developing a code of ethics. If Muckgers ever creates one, it should consider including telling sources up front that they are actually reporting.”

Targum sports columnist James Stumper Jr. agrees with Bakan, while also questioning the news value of the incident overall. In his words:

“As Rutgers students, specifically journalism majors, we are given an unbelievable opportunity to have guest speakers come to our classes and share their knowledge of the media industry. … Every time a guest lecturer comes into a class, they are taking time out of their own busy schedule to help further the students’ education. So, first of all, isn’t it a little bit rude at the surface to take this opportunity and turn it into something that could potentially harm someone’s reputation? … It saddens me as a Rutgers student that one of my classmates would take this learning opportunity and use it to fulfill his own agenda — and for what? To tell the world something everyone already knew? If you were surprised by the fact that Hermann isn’t a fan of the Star-Ledger, come sit down … I have to tell you something about Santa Claus.”

By comparison, the Targum’s editorial board contends Galperin’s pursuit of newsworthy truth may have necessitated his secrecy: “It might seem a little sneaky of Galperin not to have introduced himself as a reporter, but we understand in the bigger picture of the field: You can’t always say you’re a journalist. Sometimes investigative reporting is the only way to get information. If Galperin had identified himself as a journalist in the beginning, Hermann probably would not have said anything about the Star-Ledger at all.”

What do you think?

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  1. […] Rutgers student recorded the school’s athletic director, Julie Hermann, speaking to his media ethics and law class. In her discussion, Hermann said it […]