Alex Myers, an undergraduate journalism student at the State University of New York at Oswego, isn’t so sure he wants to be a reporter when he graduates.
The Australian exchange student experienced the potential chilling effect of a university administration on young journalists last month after he erred in the course of reporting a profile for class.
Myers, who until recently interned at Oswego’s Office of Public Affairs, wrote interview questions to sources for a class assignment, a profile about hockey coach Ed Gosek. In the e-mail, released with several other documents by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, Myers identified himself this way: “My name is Alex Myers, I work for the Office of Public Affairs at SUNY Oswego.”
Myers didn’t refer to himself as a student, nor did he clarify that the profile was for a class assignment. “Be as forthcoming as you like,” he concluded. “What you say about Mr. Gosek does not have to be positive.”
The next day, according to FIRE, “Myers received a hand-delivered letter from SUNY Oswego President Deborah Stanley, informing him that he was being placed on interim suspension, effective at 6:00 p.m. October 19, and that he would have to vacate his dorm room by that time. The letter also banned him from all campus facilities and informed him that he may be subject to arrest if he came on campus.”
The University charged Myers with “dishonesty” for failing to properly identify himself. But more distressing to journalists is that Oswego administrators deemed Myers’ qualifier about “positive” remarks to be tantamount to “disruptive behavior,” citing a section of the code of conduct that states “campus network resources may not be used to defame, harass, intimidate, or threaten another individual or group.”
Myers sought help from FIRE, and an associate director from the organization sent a letter to Oswego administrators seeking to drop the “disruptive behavior” charge. “Categorizing Myers’ emails as possible defamation, harassment, intimidation, or threats is indefensible,” wrote Peter Bonilla. “By punishing Myers for protected speech, SUNY Oswego has violated the First Amendment.”
While SUNY-Oswego dropped the suspension and the “disruptive behavior” charge, Myers must write a letter of apology to Coach Gosek and “write a piece for the Oswegonian and/or for your professor to share with other students in journalism classes that will share what you have learned from this experience.”
Myers, whose phone ran out of minutes shortly after our interview began, admitted that misidentifying himself was a significant error. “It was completely unintentional,” he explained via e-mail. “I had been working on a story for the [Office of Public Affairs] in the days prior to emailing the coaches. During correspondence for this story, I was identifying myself as a member of the OPA and by habit included it in the emails in question.”
And it is this error, not the bit about “positive remarks,” that Myers thinks angered the administration. “Had I properly identified myself, this probably would not be as big of an issue as it has turned out to be,” he wrote.
The bulk of the apology will be about the misrepresentation, Myers said. He plans to fulfill his obligation by writing a paper for class, and not for publication in the Oswegonian. Myers will discuss with his classmates the limits of technology in reporting. “E-mail interviews do not give you any leeway when conducting an interview, you have no chance to clarify,” he wrote. “So in this instance a phone or face-to-face interview would have allowed me to clear up any issues and this problem would not have arisen.”
Citing student privacy rules, no journalism professor at Oswego would even admit to teaching Myers. Prof. Arvind Diddi, who coordinates the journalism program, did not respond to requests for comment via phone or e-mail.
But communications professor Dr. John Kares Smith told The Oswegonian that he sent Stanley an email voicing his concerns:
As a Judicial Affairs Advisor for many years, I have served as an Advisor to students successfully accused of hate crimes, sexual assaults, cheating of various kinds, etc., and none of them were immediately suspended. Most left for a semester, perhaps two, and then returned to finish their educations. This kind of suspension is usually reserved for very dangerous students…often armed with guns, knives, etc., and a danger to the society and themselves. Mr. Myers is none of those things, is he? And, frankly, since your suspension was immediately withdrawn I suspect that you may have had second thoughts about it.
Students at Oswego have been outspoken in their support. After a story about the incident ran on Gawker on November 10, Ryan Deffenbaugh, a junior, tweeted: “I came to Oswego because it appeared to take journalism and its ethics seriously. What happened to Alex Myers is truly embarrassing.”
That tweet captures the sentiments of other students, including Myers. “I’ve had support from my fellow students,” he said. “They understand I made an error, but feel the school went overboard with my punishment.”
At any journalism school, students will err. That’s why they’re in school. But there are a range of journalistic sins, and this one seems minor compared to others Nick Graziano’s witnessed.
Graziano, a senior and managing editor of the weekly Oswegonian, was surprised by the administration’s stance.
“A lot of people, especially myself, think it was an overreaction by the school. He made a mistake by saying he was with the Office of Public Affairs. I feel like I’ve seen worse cases than that,” Graziano explained in a phone interview. “I’ve seen people make up quotes before, and all they had to do was write an apology letter.”
The episode made Myers feel uneasy about journalism, Graziano added. “He’s on the fence about being a journalist now. He’s got a bad taste in his mouth.”
Myers said only: “I am not completely sure of the career path I will take.”
Aileen Gallagher is an assistant professor in the magazine department at Syracuse University’s S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications. She was previously a senior editor at NYMag.com, New York magazine’s website.