Blog: The Educated Reporter

EWA Receives Some Romenesko Love for J-School Assignment Brouhaha

Demonstrating to your students how to dig up the police report on a fellow student: Does that teach journalism students a much-needed skill or cross the line?First, our own Emily Richmond waded into the controversy after a journalism professor at DePauw University showed his students how to do just that, and then media blogger extraordinaire Jim Romenesko put the spotlight on the issue on his blog.

An excerpt from Emily’s piece, which appeared on EWA’s Educated Reporter yesterday:

The student, a sophomore and varsity athlete, was arrested in January for public intoxication, as well as drinking underage, criminal mischief and running away from police, according to news accounts. Mark Tatge, an award-winning journalist who is a visiting professor at DePauw, gave his investigative reporting class 17-page packets of publicly available information on the student including court records related to her arrest, and content from her personal Twitter and Facebook accounts.

The student had friends in Tatge’s class, who informed her of the exercise. She — along with her parents — complained to DePauw administrators.

When I called to ask him about the controversy, Tatge said he thought by choosing to focus on a recent arrest it would make the lesson more relevant to his students, especially since many of them had expressed an interest in writing about documented problems with drinking and disorderly conduct on campus.

“My goal isn’t to humiliate someone or call them out in front of their peers,” Tatge said. “But just the fact that some people in the class knew the individual didn’t outweigh the benefits of the exercise.”

Tatge told Emily he provided a similar lesson “without incident” when he taught at Ohio University, but given the blowback—which included DePauw officials trying to collect the packets Tatge distributed even though the records are public—he said he’s likely unwilling to do it again. Emily interviewed Poynter Institute ethicist Kelly McBride, who said Tatge could have done things differently.

Romenesko’s contribution:

I’m surprised it took so long for Poynter to weigh in on the controversy over Mark Tatge using a DePauw student-athlete’s arrest records for his Investigative Reporting Techniques class. Poynter ethicist Kelly McBride tells the Education Writers Association public editor that Tatge “had alternatives that could have minimized the harm to this particular student,” such as pulling records for a larger group, instead of “putting an incredible spotlight” on Alison Stephens.

Comments on Romenesko’s blog are more sympathetic to Tatge. Meg Kissinger, who’s now at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, wrote:

When I taught there as a Kilgore Fellow 20 years ago, the paper ran a story about the president’s son getting arrested for public intoxication. Again, criticism ensued. Again, public record. I think Tatge is doing these kids a favor by teaching them that our dirty laundry is out there for all of us to see.

Rosemary Armao of Albany’s Times Union took issue with McBride’s assessment:

Mark Tatge deserves credit and support from his peers for finding an extremely relevant real-world example around which to build lessons for his students that will stick on public records, investigative reporting and treatment of victims. How exactly does Poynter know no alternatives were considered? It has been my experience that Poynter ethicist pontificate from afar without doing the kind of investigation and deep questioning that Tatge has done as a reporter and taught others to do.

What do you think? Should a student at a private university expect this kind of public scrutiny? Should the assignment have cast a wider net? Let us know.