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When The Tech Runs Pictures of Students on Roofs

John A. Hawkinson

I dug myself in a hole on this one and got snowed in. My Sept. 23 column, encouraged you to “stay tuned for some hacking commentary,” and now this is last issue of the term. I apologize; the subject was relatively complicated and the victim of much procrastination on my part.

From time-to-time, The Tech covers activities on campus that can fall under the general umbrella of “hacking” -- technically illicit (meaning against the rules), though generally not illegal, happenings that occur on campus, as part of the the Institute’s tradition of hacks. The IHTFP Hack Gallery ( defines a hack as a “clever, benign, and ‘ethical’ prank or practical joke, which is both challenging for the perpetrators and amusing to the MIT community (and sometimes even the rest of the world!).”

In this column, I’m looking also at something more broad than just hacks: activities performed by hackers, with a focus on students on Institute roofs.

The Tech’s coverage of these activities tends to be primarily in photographs, though there are other examples, like Eun J. Lee’s Aug. 28 story about Orange Tours [“Into MIT’s Hidden Places: Follow the Orange Florey”].

Judgement of what to print

When The Tech printed photographs of nominally illicit dormitory rush activities, I heard reader questions asking why those photographs were printed. Some readers felt that the photographs drew uncomfortable scrutiny to those depicted. They wondered why The Tech had singled them out.

When a pirate flag appeared on the Great Dome in October, some were disappointed that the only photo in The Tech ran deep inside, on page 16.

In the first case, I talked to the photographers and editors involved in selection, and they seemed surprised at the question. In their judgements, photographers had submitted quality photographs and they had selected the best and newsworthy photographs to run, as they normally would. In the second case, the photo editors didn’t think the photo was very good.

Photographer Peter R. Russo took more than one of the photos that raised concerns. When I discussed them with him, he said that he took photos of interesting activities, and that he made no special effort to concentrate on activities that might raise student concern if published.

The ZBT dome photo

On Sept. 16, The Tech ran a photograph of a Zeta Beta Tau fraternity ceremony which took place atop the little dome in broad daylight. The photograph was taken from The Tech’s office. No one would call it a hack, but I’ve heard it suggested that printing the photograph might have repercussions on hackers (as well as on ZBT).

The photo was newsworthy (in my view), and people were on the dome for a long time (around 30 minutes). A fair number of people noticed and heard about the activity on the dome.

I talked to Arthur Fitzmaurice, ZBT’s president, shortly after. He was concerned about repercussions (there have been none to date), and mentioned the administration was talking with ZBT.

Carol Orme-Johnson, assistant dean for student discipline, inquired of The Tech how the people in the photo were identified as ZBT members (the answer: by their conspicuous fraternity lettering). I spoke to her in early October, and she said, “It’s my job to investigate incidents that go on across campus.” When asked what effect the photograph could have, she said, “It’s evidence, it is not proof. It’s not conclusive proof of guilt. It could be rebutted.”

I also talked to John DiFava, chief of the campus police. DiFava confirmed that the police weren’t involved, but that he felt that it would be problematic to use a newspaper photograph to identify students. I got the sense he felt it was a question of degree, and that the police might use such a photograph to identify individuals if a serious crime were at issue.

I interviewed Samuel J. Keyser, a former dean who has written and spoken extensively on the subject of hacking at MIT. Keyser points out to me that none of the photographs (or the article) I was concerned about were really about “hacks.” They were all about activities tangential or perhaps pertinent to the hacker subculture, but not hacks themselves.

Keyser also points out that “hackers are between a rock and a hard place. What’s the point if there’s no publicity? What’s the point if you can’t control it?” A “true hacker” has little to fear from publicity, as he or she never gets caught.

The Tech does not shield the community

I think it’s important to understand (at least, if you’re a person who might be photographed, or written about, or otherwise covered) that The Tech cannot be expected to kill a photograph or a story out of a desire to “protect” or “shield” students from repercussions.

If The Tech were to be complicit in a “cover up” of some sort, it would look extremely bad for the staff involved. Keyser describes the paper’s duty as “to cover the news, and to do it honestly and truthfully”; I think he hits the point head-on.

Student journalists take their craft seriously, and in such a case their reputation would be damaged. Readers would always have to wonder how much information The Tech has that we have chosen not to print.

Some people have asked me if The Tech’s journalists are students first or journalists first. It’s an uncomfortable question. Everyone has divided loyalties, but I think expectation of the public needs to be that The Tech’s journalists are journalists. (It’s also important to understand that all journalists need to have an idea of the sense of damage they can do. That to publish facts can have consequences, and that those consequences need to be considered.)

Duty of the editors

I hope I don’t contradict myself when I say that I think the editors do need to remember to think carefully about the ramifications of photographs they publish. I don’t think wrong decisions were made, but I do think process by which they were made may have been too rapid.

Roof fines rumors

I’ve heard rumors of the roof access fine going up (from $50 to $500) in response to the ZBT photo. Keyser reminded me that The Tech’s ZBT photo pales in comparison to far more serious incidents in the past. For instance, in 1999 a student fell 96 feet down an E52 chimney [“Freshman Injured in Fall From Rooftop”; Nov. 30, 1999]. If The Tech’s photograph has anything to do with fine increases, I suspect it’s the straw that broke the camel’s back.

Ombudsman hangs on by a thin thread

At Saturday’s meeting of the Managing Board, I was reelected to the position of Ombudsman by one vote for Volume 124 of The Tech, from February 2004 through January 2005. If, in fact, dissent about my writing within the paper is a good sign, I suppose I’ve achieved the maximum sustainable level.

The New York Times’ Public Editor published his first column on Sunday. I look forward to seeing how he manages the job.

The Tech’s Ombudsman welcomes your feedback, to His opinions are his own.