Did University Professor’s Lesson in Public Records Cross the Line?
A DePauw University journalism professor turned a student’s underage drinking arrest into a teachable moment about public records that his class – and the rest of the campus in Indiana – isn’t likely to forget any time soon.
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.”
Not everyone agrees with Tatge. The singled-out student’s parents conveyed their dismay to the university’s president, and campus officials have been attempting to collect the packets Tatge handed out. That seems like a largely symbolic maneuver, given that the original sources remain readily available.
Tatge said he conducted a similar class activity without incident when he taught previously at Ohio University. He also told me he probably won’t do it again.
“If people are going to be this upset and spend this much time on it, it isn’t worth it,” Tatge said.
Tatge — who spent 30 years working in newsrooms including as a senior editor at Forbes magazine, a staff reporter at the Wall Street Journal and an investigative reporter at Cleveland’s Plain Dealer – said he hadn’t been informed of any disciplinary action by the administration. The most pressing questions for him relate to academic freedom, and the university’s response.
He said his fellow faculty members have been supportive but he “has not received any concern or support from the administration about this. What that signals to me is that the student is paramount here, even at the expense of learning.”
Christopher Wells, DePauw’s vice president of communications, told me the university is talking with students from Tatge’s class about the incident, as well as the faculty government. He had no comment on Tatge’s status, or on whether there would be action taken against him.
“There is no inconsistency in supporting the learning of our students and protecting the academic freedom of our faculty,” Wells said in a phone interview. “In every situation the university is going to work to serve both of those goals.”
Chase Hall, editor in chief of The DePauw, the student-run newspaper at the private university, said part of the tension over the incident stems from the insular climate of the relatively small campus of 2,300 students.
“We’re a close-knit community,” said Hall, a junior who was not in Tatge’s class. “I think there is an instinctive reaction to want to protect each other.”
While the student’s arrest appeared in the local newspaper’s police blotter, The Depauw did not initially report it. Hall said that was due to an editorial oversight, rather than a willful omission. The student paper has since published a full account of the arrest, in conjunction with its reporting on Tatge.
Having journalism students conduct background checks isn’t unusual, and asking a class to consider a fellow student’s arrest isn’t inappropriate given that it’s a matter of public record, said Mark Horvit, executive director of Investigative Reporters and Editors at the University of Missouri School of Journalism.
Horvit does a similar, although arguably more evenhanded, exercise with his own classes. He has his students conduct background checks on themselves, but they have leeway in how much they share. He also demonstrates a background check on public officials — and himself.
Kelly McBride, a senior faculty member at the Poynter Institute and one of the nation’s leading experts in media ethics, said she saw three central issues to the DePauw incident: how responsible journalism is being taught, whether embarrassing an individual student was necessary to the day’s lesson, and the importance of preserving academic freedom.
McBride said it’s appropriate to encourage journalism students to consider events happening around them, and to teach them that public records can be an invaluable resource. At most colleges, the arrest of an athlete on drinking-related charges would trigger frank conversations about how the campus administration was responding to both the specific incident and the underlying issues, McBride said.
At the same time, McBride said she had “great compassion” for the DePauw student who was singled out.
Tatge “had alternatives that could have minimized the harm to this particular student,” McBride said, such as pulling records for a larger group, instead of “putting an incredible spotlight” on that individual.
“My fear is a lot of people think journalism is about publicly humiliating people and invading their privacy, and it would be reasonable for people who look at this from the outside to think that’s what this professor was trying to teach them to do,” McBride said. “I can’t possibly believe that’s what he intended, but because he didn’t search for alternatives, people might draw that conclusion.”
While Tatge’s methods probably could have been better constructed, it’s possible to still see value in the lesson. For the aspiring journalists in his class, it demonstrates that reporting on a difficult situation, even when it is public information, is not an abstract exercise. What they report will affect real people.
For the rest of DePauw’s students — and indeed, their peers elsewhere — this experience could also serve as a reminder that their personal actions have consequences. They are creating paper and digital trails that will follow them long after they leave the relatively sheltered enclave of higher education.
Have a question, comment or concern for the Educated Reporter? Email EWA Public Editor Emily Richmond at firstname.lastname@example.org. She also tweets @EWAEmily.