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COLUMN

The Tech Pretends to Be a Daily

By John A. Hawkinson

New readers: Greetings from The Tech's Ombudsman. My role is to interface between readers and the paper, and to offer critical commentary on the paper in this irregularly published column. Feel free to e-mail ombudsman@the-tech.mit.edu with any and all concerns.

The Tech you see before you, and in the days to come, is something of an interesting beast. Normally The Tech publishes twice weekly, on Tuesdays and Fridays; in the coming days, you'll see daily issues from Sunday through Thursday.

The Tech does this for many reasons, including to impress you. Keep in mind that what you see may not be usual; some sections may have plenty of time in advance to prepare their content (like Arts). Other sections may be scrambling to produce content against accelerated deadlines (News). Since The Tech, like other student groups, is artificially constrained from recruiting prior to next Friday, rest assured that recruitment is a goal on the minds of the editors.

By the way, I encourage you to submit tips and leads for news stories to news@the-tech.mit.edu. The content of the paper is only as good as the ideas that are received (and generated), and it's difficult for The Tech to know what's going on around campus without help. If there's an item you think The Tech should be covering, or a fact that looks suspicious and worth researching, please let us know.

Old readers: If you were gone for the summer, you missed my columns on The Tech's editorials (July 9) and The Tech's mishandling of e-mail and its Web site (August 6). I encourage you to review them if you give a hoot.

Balance in Sidney-Pacific Israeli flag story

I feel obligated to devote some time to a story we ran on Aug. 6 ["Student Told to Remove Israel Flag from Dormitory Window"]; it accounted for most of my Tech-related time recently, and I think it's been a learning experience for both the news editors and myself.

I was particularly struck by the text in the article, "[The flag] 'hangs on the window,' rather than from the window," quoting Anthony E. Gray PhD '01, project director for graduate housing. That text appeared to me to make a mockery of Gray because it suggests that "on the window" and "from the window" are almost identical phrases; distinguishing between them with no further verbiage is quite difficult. The reporter did not intend to portray Gray in that light.

Deciding to be pro-active rather than reactive, I talked to Gray about his portrayal in The Tech. Gray and Keith Hampton, associate professor of Urban Studies & Planning and Sidney-Pacific Graduate Residence associate housemaster, to whom I later spoke (see below), both expressed strong concerns about the bias of The Tech towards students; that when The Tech is faced with conflicting views on an issue from a student and from an administrator, The Tech ends up attaching more credibility to the student position. This bias can show up in the facts we relate, the people we interview, the quotations we include, etc. I'm not sure how biased we really were here; what do you think?

Not only is this bias a problem in of itself, but it leads to a reluctance of administrators to talk to The Tech, and a reluctance to communicate with The Tech when they're unhappy with our coverage.

Anyone quoted or referenced in The Tech who feels misrepresented, handled unfairly, or portrayed in a fashion less than balanced and professional, should let The Tech know. It's only with that feedback that we have the opportunity to realize our errors and take steps to address them. If you're unsure how to communicate, please feel free to direct concerns to the Ombudsman, or directly to the news department via news@the-tech.mit.edu.

The other concern I got out of my conversation with Gray, which prompted me to speak to Hampton, was the issue of balance (different from bias). In the subsection entitled "Goler says rules applied selectively," the article quotes Jonathan A. Goler G saying, "Tony Gray seemed to be covering for [Hampton]," and then provides no response to that accusation from either Hampton or Gray. This prompted a protracted dialogue between the news editors and myself on what degree of balance is necessary in stories, and what merits a printed clarification or erratum.

I contend that balance is very important. As a newspaper, when we quote someone, if we don't offer an opposing viewpoint, or give readers cause to question the offered viewpoint, we give the appearance that what we have quoted is truth. When the quotation is an accusation, the responsibility of fair and balanced coverage is even more important. In this case, Keith Hampton was out of the country for 10 days, which complicated including a response from him.

I spent a lot of time trying figure out exactly what "covering" meant, with difficulty; I even talked to Goler. The best I can come up with is that it means a very specialized kind of dishonesty, or an attempt to mislead; as such, our obligation to provide balance was very very strong, and I do not think we met it. In this case, if no response was available, I think the quotation should not have run, at least not without additional mitigating language.

Some lame excuses for lack of Dilbert

Some of you may have noticed the lack of Dilbert in The Tech's four summer issues since June 9. Embarrassingly enough, it boils down to lameness. The Tech's contract with United Media (Dilbert's supplier) lapsed, but no one realized it; the production department observed the password to get new Dilberts stopped working, and the business department verified there were no outstanding invoices, but stopped there. Finally, in August, we got around to calling and finding out about the contractual problems. If they're not fixed for this issue, I hear they should be fixed Real Soon Now (tm).

* Since my column is edited only with my permission, I take full responsibility for this error.

The Ombudsman welcomes your feedback, to o@tt.mit.edu. His opinions are his own.