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Keeping a Level Head Don't Rush to Conclusions in Tragedy's Aftermath

Eric J. Plosky

Whenever tragedy strikes, there’s a tremendous urge to jump to conclusions.

Early Tuesday morning, Richard Guy ’99 was found dead in his room at East Campus. It has since been established by the Cambridge Medical Examiner that Guy suffocated while inhaling nitrous oxide (laughing gas); the MIT Campus Police presume the death was accidental.

The Tech broke the story but didn’t mention Guy by name, since issues hit the stands by 10:45 a.m. on Tuesday, fifteen minutes before Guy’s parents had been notified. Local media quickly descended on East Campus and the rest of MIT, and on Tuesday night the Guy story appeared on Fox News at 10:00 p.m., as well as on all three of the 11:00 p.m. network news broadcasts. Yesterday the Boston Globe, Boston Herald, and The Tech each printed additional stories. Many press outlets have already rushed to connect the Guy incident with the drinking death, two years ago, of Scott S. Krueger ’01, and have produced additional stories on trends in nitrous use in the Boston area.

Most students who knew Guy -- and most residents of East Campus -- have been quick to vilify the press. In many respects, the backlash has been understandable. Sensationalists, according to some reports, called some of Guy’s neighbors, searching for a photograph of him, before his death was officially announced. The Tech has been lambasted for rushing to press. And local media have been harshly criticized for drawing connections between Guy and Krueger, before and even after the facts in the Guy case were confirmed.

There is no reason, at least at this point, to draw parallels between Krueger and Guy. To say that both deaths are indicative of a trend, that MIT is a pressure cooker that drives its students to the point of fatal irresponsibility, is to paint campus with such a broad brush as to obscure the facts specific to each incident. We do not yet know the exact circumstances surrounding Guy’s death; we may never know. It is reckless to state or to assume otherwise.

If this situation is to be properly presented and to remain under control, levelheadedness must prevail. Journalists covering the Guy story should do themselves a service by conducting themselves tactfully and gathering the facts and opinions in as unbiased a manner as possible; students must temper their inspired hatred of the media if they have any desire to set the story straight. Needless to say, too, the media shouldn’t rush to a snap judgment, shouldn’t interpret the Guy incident as conclusive evidence, along with Krueger, that MIT pressures its students to death.

Yellow journalism has long proved an effective means of selling newspapers; screaming headlines and tawdry copy persist to this day. Civilized, responsible members of the modern media, however, should remember that their mission is to report the facts, not to pursue a story in such a zeal to sell papers as to exacerbate an already traumatic situation. There is a fine line involved, and issues of ethical journalism must be considered -- what to print, when to print it, what to state explicitly and what to imply. Surely the media have not, on the whole, distinguished themselves by tactful behavior in the Guy case. To a certain extent, journalists must be deferential; deference has so far remained absent.

Since Guy’s death, students aghast at the media’s brazenness have repeatedly refused to entertain reporters’ questions -- an understandable position at first. Withholding commentary is an effective means of expressing disgust with the media; besides, especially before all the facts were in, there was no reason to add to a confused, emotional situation by injecting random speculation or personal opinions.

But it is now time for students involved -- Guy’s friends and East Campus neighbors -- to speak up if they want anything beneficial to result from his death. To remain silent is to invite comments from the completely uninformed; this is why the quotes from MIT students in a wire story yesterday were along the lines of “Maybe [MIT students] think they’re too smart to suffer the consequences [of their actions].” Surely there is a middle ground between such useless statements and continuing denial -- a productive middle ground that might make possible some useful long-term outcome. Other students provided reporters with opposing, extreme descriptions. One said that she saw the deaths of Krueger and Guy as isolated incidents; another described Guy’s death as “unfortunate but not entirely surprising.” Again, surely the correct description lies somewhere in the middle.

Only those who require neatly packaged explanations for everything are foolish enough to point to the deaths of Guy and Krueger and identify both as part of the same trend. Such a presumption is, as yet, unwarranted. Yes, MIT can stress some students out, but it is a running jump of logic to then conclude that MIT is an inherently stressful place that drives its students to “blow off steam” in sometimes-fatal ways.

The media like to portray MIT so; observers often point to hacks and unusual MIT traditions as evidence that students need ways to express their frustrated creativity. Even if you accept that account -- I don’t; I think hacks are a celebration of MIT culture, not a necessary safety-valve of expression -- nobody can say with certainty that Guy was looking for a way to vent stress and pent-up creative energy when he set about inhaling nitrous oxide. Maybe there was another reason. Maybe there was no reason in particular. If we don’t know, it’s unjustifiable to attribute his death to some sort of overarching campus phenomenon.

Today, the Globe is set to print a follow-up story on Richard Guy for which this columnist was interviewed. The twenty-minute conversation I had yesterday with the Globe reporter may, as conversations sometimes are, have been misconstrued, and the words you read in today’s Globe may be out of context, despite what I believe were good intentions on the part of the reporter. I explained myself as clearly as I could, and took pains to verify my statements, but accidental misinterpretation is always a possibility.

For the sake of clarity, so I am sure to be understood, what I told the Globe reporter is what I say again here: Don’t rush to judgment. Yes, Richard Guy is the latest in a series of tragic deaths at MIT, but that doesn’t automatically mean his story has anything to do with anyone else’s, and it is at the very least premature to connect the dots of Guy and Scott Krueger and others in an attempt to identify a trend, especially for the sake of identifying a trend. As in all tragic situations, reason and levelheadedness must be the order of the day if we are to determine the truth.