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The Ombudsman Hard Questions

Besides the hordes noting the deplorable state of The Tech’s webpage, several readers contacted the paper to complain about something far more central to its mission: our news coverage.

Two Next House residents raised serious concerns with a story about sanctions levied against that dorm’s Third East hall [“Next House Pranks Result in Sanctions,” November 7, 2000]. The story, which dealt with several incidents of vandalism and an alcohol violation at a party on Third East contained a number of inaccuracies.

Resident Zachary A. Apoian ’01 says in his letter to the editor that the “article makes the completely unfounded inference that the acts of vandalism taking place around Next House in the days following the party were somehow the result of the party.” As Apoian goes onto explain, a plausible reading of the story attributes the smashing of a four-year-old’s pumpkin, the poisoning of a tank of fish, and other acts of vandalism to Third East partygoers despite the fact that these acts of vandalism and the party occurred days apart.

Apoian’s concerns are justified and his disappointment with the article is understandable: The most basic requirement for any piece of journalism that appears in this or any other newspaper is getting the facts straight.

In defense of the authors of this story and the editors who prepared it for publication, these mistakes were inadvertent and the result of a bad decision to merge two stories and poor communication afterwards. The story, in its final form, is the concatenation of a story about sporadic incidents of vandalism around the time of Halloween and a piece about an alcohol violation that occurred at a Halloween party on Third East and subsequent sanctions against the hall.

Although the vandalism and the party were for the most part unrelated, when the two stories were combined by one of the reporters and then edited by three editors the lines between vandals and partygoers blurred to invisibility. A tight deadline before a Tuesday issue contributed to the confusion.

Misreporting wasn’t this story’s only problem: What the authors left out was, by virtue of its absence, as bad as what they got wrong. In failing to include comment from residents, the authors deprived the article of much needed balance. The rather harsh sanctions against Third East look much different from the perspective of residents than from that of Dean Carol Orme-Johnson. To the credit of the authors, attempts were made to contact residents. These attempts should have been reflected in the story. The editorial staff, however, should have seriously considered not running a story without such necessary perspective.

Another reader voiced her disappointment with The Tech’s coverage of Lucy D. Crespo Da Silva’s death [“Student Ends Life in Jump from Dorm,” November 21]. Many reporters argue (out of respect for the grieving or a fear of being labeled sensationalistic) that suicides should be covered in the most minimal fashion possible. I believe that while such stories must be covered with care and sensitivity their import demands complete and accurate coverage.

While the initial reporting of Da Silva’s death reported the bare minimum of detail surrounding the suicide, it failed to probe the difficult but important question of what drove a young woman to take her own life. The Tech should not be in the business of prying into the private lives of any student, but Da Silva’s motivation could influence the design of counseling and support systems at the Institute. Additionally, the frequency of suicides on campus demands that we examine closely those support systems and those who administer them.

Another article about this topic is planned for this issue. I hope that additional reporting asks the hard questions that a campus must ask following the death of one of its own.