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Salary Cuts?, Insurance, and Zephyr

By John A. Hawkinson

An Ombudsman’s work is never done. Since it appears that the privileges of this unedited column extend to such ostentation as boldface, I’ll keep including headings so you can pick and choose what to read. As always, drop me a line to with any concerns.

Salary cuts: Reader A wrote me about the rank one (top) story’s headline last issue, “MIT Budget Tight, Salary Cuts Possible,” suggesting that it seemed needlessly alarmist. I agree; all The Tech said was “pressures will likely be sufficiently high that ‘we’ll have to ask questions,’ and salary cuts are an option, Vest said” [emphasis mine]. Perhaps you’d get the same answer if you asked Vest if he’d like Baked Alaska for dinner in 2005? Where was the real news in this story? How important was it?

Insurance: The Tech missed the boat completely! Monday (May 12), as last issue was in preparation, news broke that graduate student health costs would increase 70 percent, to $1,536, but there was no story in Tuesday’s Tech. The increase was announced at 1:18 p.m. ... maybe the news staff isn’t on the right mailing lists? Claims of deadline pressure aren’t good enough.

On Journalism: My barometer of America’s confidence in journalism reads an all-time low. After Jayson Blair’s fabrications, now Rick Bragg resigns over dateline/byline sketchiness, and two top editors of The New York Times leave. Wow.

Zephyr: Read on, in subheadings.

* Background: Zephyr is MIT Athena’s electronic instant messaging system; it predates IRC, AIM, ICQ, etc., while generally providing a superset of their features. Not only can Zephyr be used for private person-to-person communication, but also among loose groups of people, known as classes. Unlike a mailing list, anyone knowing the name of a zephyr class can subscribe, so privacy is limited. Many zephyr classes are publically known, and are used for discussions on specific topics.

* Logging: Some of the more popular zephyr classes are publically logged, meaning that a record of all zephyrgrams sent is kept in a public place for easy reference. For instance, the help class has a public log to help preserve good detailed answers.

* The incident: On April 25, The Tech quoted some comments expressed on a publically logged zephyr class, and this jarred a lot of people who use zephyr classes. Additionally, the quotation omitted a “:)” via ellipsis (...), resulting in an allegation of misquotation, and hard feelings all around.

* My thoughts: Generally speech on zephyr classes is extremely informal, far more tantamount to what you might hear casually in a room with just a few people around, or even a party; it does not approach the formality of classical written communication or even the formality of an e-mail message. Few people who send zephyrs expect that those zephyrs might later be quoted back at them. As a SIPB member and frequent zephyr user, the idea of my zephyrs appearing in print in the campus newspaper is shocking!

To add confusion, some participants may not even be aware that a given zephyr class is being publically logged. And no one can say whether a class is being privately logged by any subscriber. Some view the quoting of zephyr logs as a serious breach of privacy, tantamount to journalists at a private party eavesdropping and then quoting overheard speech.

Contrariwise, it’s silly to suggest that something anyone at MIT could go and look up online (the zephyr log) should be restricted from newspaper quotations.

Fundamentally, there is a mismatch between the expectations of the Zephyr community as a forum for ephemeral non-serious discussion, and the fact that it could be on the record, and could be newsworthy.

Resolving this is difficult, if not impossible. Part of the appeal of Zephyr is its informality; having the environment change such that everyone spoke extremely carefully and rigidly would be unfortunate. It’s hard to see a way to a happy medium here.

As a concession to that environment, it is this ombudsman’s opinion that The Tech should make reasonable efforts to avoid quoting zephyr logs where possible, trying to obtain the same information from other sources. Further, those individuals quoted should be given an opportunity to respond or contextualize their quotes prior to publication. When quoting from non-traditional media, reporters should try even harder to contact those quoted, even telephoning late at night, and should certainly send an e-mail message.

The reality, though, is that anything said on a public zephyr class could be quoted by someone, including The Tech, and Zephyr users should realize that. Yet, I do not believe The Tech’s staff have any desire to cast a chilling effect over the use of Zephyr.

The Ombudsman welcomes your feedback, darts and laurels both, to His opinions are his own.