Amid ‘Hailstorm of Coverage & Criticism,’ Rutgers Student Editor Defends Decision to Report on Controversial Class Talk

Rutgers University student journalist Simon Galperin is confident he acted ethically when reporting on a visit RU athletic director Julie Hermann made to his media ethics and law class. His coverage of her guest lecture earlier this semester for the online news start-up Muckgers indirectly spurred “a hailstorm of media coverage and criticism.”

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Simon Galperin, Muckgers managing editor

As I previously posted, his recording of the session made public Hermann’s view that it would be “great” if a local professional newspaper folded — a sentiment made to seem especially callous when framed against the backdrop of recent massive layoffs at the paper.

The decision by Galperin to report on Hermann’s class chat has struck some critics as similarly callous — and unethical. A columnist for The Daily Targum student newspaper deemed it sensationalist clickbait, declaring, “Congratulations, Galperin. You got your 15 minutes.” The instructor for the media ethics and law class — the individual who invited Hermann to speak — offered a more nuanced, but no less damning critique: “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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Muckgers editor-in-chief Chase Brush offered a lengthy retort yesterday explaining and defending Galperin and the outlet for running the story. In his words:

“When we first learned that Hermann would be visiting one of our writer’s classes, we jumped at the prospect [of] being able to report on the event. Here was one of Rutgers’ most important and influential public figures, the head of a department reinvigorated at the prospect of joining the Big Ten and still recovering from a series of unfortunate scandals, coming to talk to — of all people — a group of student journalists in a public classroom. If she was going to say something relevant to our readers, we were going to report on it. And she did.”

In his commentary, Brush also crystallized two of the main questions at the heart of the related journalism ethics debate: “Should Galperin have told Hermann that he was a reporter, and that he had planned on using her comments for future publication? Or, more generally: What obligation do reporters have to their sources when it comes to disclosing that kind of intent?”

In the exclusive Q&A below, Galperin, Muckgers managing editor, shares his perspectives on that obligation. He also weighs in on the running debate over reporting on college classes and the difficult balancing act of being a student and a student journalist.

The fact that the class [in which Hermann spoke] was on the record seems undisputed.  In respect to ensuring total source understanding, did you consider letting Hermann know upfront that you were specifically recording the entire session and planning to report something for Muckgers?

No, I did not. Hermann knew that the class was on the record. She knew that the students would be writing a news story as an assignment. and the result of her appearance would be a news story on what she said. Every student in that room should’ve been thinking and acting as a reporter. I do not believe that I, specifically, had to make myself known as one in a classroom full of students reporting on the event.

The unprincipled/unethical distinction [made by the course’s instructor about Galperin’s reporting] is dense on spec. My takeaway from it is related to a Malcolm Gladwell quote I once came across — paraphrased from memory, “I do not ever want sources to regret speaking with me.” To that end, did you consider reaching out to Hermann after the fact to possibly add context or get clarification on some of the comments you may have guessed would be picked up as more provocative?

Gladwell continues to say that if he feels that someone will regret speaking to him, he will not do the story, not use the interview or not use the parts he thinks they’ll regret having said. That’s Gladwell’s brand of journalism, perhaps. To me, that’s a form of self-censorship that echoes the flak filter in Noam Chomsky’s propaganda model.

Having said that — no, I did not consider reaching out to add context or clarification on the Star-Ledger comments (to which I’m sure you are referring) because they were playful remarks in response to what she perceives as unfair coverage in the media. What I care about in our reporting much more than Hermann’s quips on media coverage is her speaking about being gay in college sports, pay-for-play for student athletes and the subsidies her department receives annually from the university. The last one in particular is what really requires clarification and context, but also deserves its own report. Muckgers is already working on that.

From a larger perspective, do you feel student journalists should mention their journalist status upfront in all their classes to professors, classmates or guest speakers?

That’s not a black-and-white question, exactly. There’s a serious and worthwhile debate going on on the topic — and even among our editorial board, we are unsure either way. But one thing we agree on is that when a public figure as influential as Hermann is giving a guest lecture, they should act as though their comments will go down in the public record that is journalism. If I wanted to use something a professor or student said, I’d ask for their permission.

Senator Cory Booker came to guest lecture at a Rutgers political science class earlier in the year and several local publications reported on his comments, but were not tasked with informing Booker of their status as a reporter. Cory Booker is a public figure. Julie Hermann is a public figure. Students are not public figures and neither are professors. Their comments deserve sensitivity.

Do you consider the classroom a public space/fair game for reporting at all times?

No, I do not. Usually, classrooms aren’t the haunt of choice for powerful public figures and when they are, those figures should know their comments are being presented to a public audience and are unquestionably on the record. When those people are speaking, it is journalists’ duty to hold them accountable.

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