The Tech - Online EditionMIT's oldest and largest
newspaper & the first
newspaper published
on the web
Boston Weather: 41.0°F | Fair

COLUMN

Fight over facts: UA Goals vs. UA Q&A

John A. Hawkinson

Inside this column

* Inside this column p. 5 * UA Goals checklist/UA Q&A uproar p. 5 * Can’t we fit death on the front page? p. 6 * Endowment p. 6 * “Race by the numbers” graphs p. 6 * Year in Review captions p. 6

UA Goals checklist/UA Q&A uproar

This issue is a subtle one, and I hope I can explain it well; I think it is important.

Last week Tuesday’s Tech ran “UA Completes Under Half of Fall Projects,” a news story describing the state of various projects (“goals”) of the Undergraduate Association. (This was the fourth piece on the goals and the first to quantify their progress.) This week Tuesday, a “UA Q&A” column ran in the features section, taking issue with facts reported in the news article (“There were ... a number of goals that were incorrectly listed as incomplete in The Tech article... we hope that in the future they would be a bit more accurate.”).

Prior to the production of that issue, UA representatives were in discussion with the news department about the alleged inaccuracies.

In my opinion, sniping between sections should not be appear in the newspaper, with the exception of the letters pages (and to some extent, the Ombudsman’s column).

Regarding facts, the sections of a newspaper should speak consistently and credibly. Not only does this apply to the news section, where articles should cover all sides of the story, but the opinion and features editors take care to confirm the facts claimed in their sections (the letters pages, as part of the opinion section, are subject to those constraints as well).

If, despite these measures, a published fact is found to be false, it should be corrected in the errata section of the paper.

Parties who are biased about particular previously-published facts should not be offered space to write about their own interpretation of them. Instead, an unbiased party (generally from the news department) should investigate the allegations of inaccuracy and report back. The results should not be accompanied by sarcasm (“If you send your feedback ... it’ll become a part of the prestigious public record that we like to refer to as The Tech.”); facts should be presented calmly and straightforwardly.

UA Q&A did not provide a detailed explanation of exactly which facts were in dispute, nor did it even try. It raised doubts about the entire article (and by implication the news department), and only named “a few” of the goals that it claimed were classified incorrectly.

The Tech would not have printed statements like those in the opinion section without substantiation; they would have been fact-checked and the allegations clarified.

To print them in the features section (which is more rigorous than opinion but less rigorous than news) seems laughable.

Editor in chief Brian Loux explains that the column is “the UA’s chance to [provide] their own stance on things.” Does he somehow think that it shouldn’t be edited, unlike all other content in the paper?

Aside from all the journalistic reasons not to print such allegations, the mere fact that the UA and the news department were already talking worsens the situation. When private discussion turn into public conversation, human beings get entrenched in their positions and amicable resolution becomes more difficult.

Even Loux, secure in his belief in the prerogative of this features column to obliquely critique the news section, “felt they went a little far.”

News and features director Beckett W. Sterner OK’d the text at the time, but was operating under impression that the question being answered was genuine, rather than made up by the UA Q&A authors. Writing in an e-mail, he “now realize[s] the value of having only one official voice ... rather than having several statements in different parts of the paper.”

I discussed the situation over dinner with former editor in chief Jennifer Krishnan. Krishnan strongly believe in the boundaries between the sections of the paper, saying it is “not appropriate for the column to question The Tech’s integrity anywhere other than the letters.”

About the editor’s note within the UA Q&A (“The Tech is currently discussing with the UA the nature of the discrepancies and will publish errata should the article prove to include inaccuracies.”), Krishnan says, “I just think it makes us look silly.”

UA Q&A claims the “incorrectly listed” goals are “all either completed or have become more significant long-term endeavors.” That’s a pretty big “or”; “completed” is very different than “long-term”.

I think at least one source of confusion was the categorization of projects into “Goals Complete as of Feb. 1,” “Goals Incomplete as of Feb. 1,” and “Goals with upcoming/ongoing deadlines.” I was rather confused about the distinction between the last two.

Staff reporter Lauren E. LeBon clarified that all goals with listed target dates prior to Feb. 1 appeared in the first two columns and had their status evaluated. Goals with target dates after Feb. 1 were placed in the 3rd column.

UA Q&A claims the “plasma display project” is a significant long-term endeavor, but the UA Goals Web site (http://web.mit.edu/ua/www/projects/goals.html) still lists a target date of “end of December [2003].” If the UA cannot be bothered to update the target dates on their Web site (which claims to have last been modified on Oct. 10, 2003), they should not complain when The Tech observes they have missed their target dates.

On the other hand, the “coffeehouse reintroduction” has a target date of “ongoing” but appeared in the “incomplete” column. Looks like a genuine gripe (as is the nominations committee).

Can’t we fit death on the front page?

This week Tuesday’s issue carried a news brief, “Custodian Found Dead,” in a small box at the bottom of page 15. (It was referenced on the front page in the right-hand “inside box.”) One reader wrote me to complain about this; as he says, “Death is BIG NEWS.”

The production department explained to me that they were initially not informed of the existence of the story until after the front page layout was drafted, and that the editor in chief decided it was not necessary to adjust the front page layout.

I concur with the complaint. When someone dies at MIT, it should be on the front page. Everyone should know about it, not just those who make it to the last page inside the paper. (It is also disappointing that the news brief was so short on details.)

Endowment

I found last week Friday’s article on MIT’s endowment [“Net Decline in MIT Endowment”] to be a bit perplexing. The article attributed the decline to “gifts and pledges, investment performance, and expenditures.” Most of us think the endowment is an ever-increasing fund, and that the principal of the endowment should only grow (based on gifts and re-investing some of the interest income). As such, it’s hard to see how gifts are a component of a decline in value.

I spoke to MIT Treasurer Allan S. Bufferd ’59, and he was able to help me resolve some of the confusion. Bufferd says the change in value of the endowment has “three components”: gifts, which are “always positive”; spending, which “is always a negative”; and income and “appreciation or depreciation of existing assets.”

“How do we explain why the dollar value of the endowment went down? Well, it’s very simple. The dollars of gifts plus the dollars of investment return ... were less than the amount that was spent. So the dollar value of the endowment went down even though the investment return was positive.”

I was also confused by the reference in the article to “limited exposure to hedge funds ...” as a possible cause of the decline. Bufferd explained that “there is no implication [that] ‘we should have had’” more investments in hedge funds, “or that ‘we should have in the future.’” Instead, exposure to hedge funds was one of the “characteristic differences” between MIT’s investment strategy and those of our peer institutions.

I have 900 words of notes from talking to him, but I’ll try to encourage the news department to do a more detailed followup. There’s a lot of confusing stuff here and distilling it down for normal people to understand is tough, but worthwhile.

Ironically, The Chronicle of Higher Education published a pertinent article on the same day (Feb. 6): “Managing Endowments in 2004” by Verne O. Sedlacek, Sarah E. Clark, and Timothy Yates. The authors argue that the popular practice of spending 5 percent of the market value of an endowment each year is an outdated practice that made sense when the real return on endowments was high (7.5 percent from 1992 to 2002), but now that the return is lower, spending 5 percent of the endowment risks benefitting current students “at the expense of future students.” According to Bufferd, MIT spent more than 5 percent in FY2003.

“Race by the numbers” graphs

Multiple readers wrote in about the graphs in the “Perspectives on Diversity” page in Friday’s issue. Two observed that the multiple shades of gray in pie slices were almost indistinguishable from each other, and that the numbers did not add up to 100 percent. Former executive editor Eun J. Lee coordinated that section, and in an e-mail she attributed the numerical issues to both round-off error and people of more than one race. The production staffer who produced the page concurred regarding the illegibility, and had expected the different grays to be more distinguishable.

Year in Review captions

I still haven’t managed to sit down and finish slogging through The Tech’s Year in Review issue. But the one thing that struck me was the lack of captions on the photo spreads. Photography editor Brian Hemond told me that captions would have been easy to do, but that the arts section decided not to have them, and other sections chose to be consistent. Then-arts editor Jeremy Baskin explains to me in an e-mail, “We made a global decision to have no captions in arts for the Year In Review. We viewed the section’s purpose as providing a telescoped (i.e., opposite of microscopic) look at the previous year, and photos were meant to be representative.”

I think that’s poor. When readers see a photo, they want to know where to look for more details. It’s impractical to search through an entire year of Tech issues to find the caption that originally ran with a photo. The right thing to do is to run the caption with the photo--every time.

The Tech’s Ombudsman welcomes your feedback, to ombudsman@the-tech.mit.edu. His opinions are his own.