Punishing cheating is not easy. Academic misconduct varies in severity, and accusations of it can be wrong. Purposeful leaders resolve these difficulties by trial and error. Over time, they cultivate a sense of fairness and a shame at unfair advantage. Fair ways of meting out punishment follow.
A good example is MIT’s Policies and Procedures on student academic misconduct. The document tells professors to carefully avoid an atmosphere of harassment when investigating a cheating accusation. And just as with grades, cheating accusations are kept private to starve bullies, who are all too common.
But it’s difficult for newspapers to be fair and honorable adjudicators since they’re not very sensitive to the people they hurt. Unlike professors and administrators, journalists thrive on attention, making them less trustworthy.
Recently, The Tech published claims of academic dishonesty involving students participating in HackMIT, a large, student-run event. The front page headline was “Two HackMIT teams disqualified for misrepresenting [their work].”
The headline screams, but hold on. First, the accusations, which originated on a HackMIT blog post, were unproven. Event leadership said the students had “voluntarily stepped down” and had “not been found guilty.” Second, the alleged crime may have been unintentional. The work was assembled in a short weekend, the allegedly dishonest presentation was hasty, and the students were apologetic afterwards.
Briefly forgetting the charged nature of the topic, The Tech’s coverage was reasonably reliable by news standards. The source of the accusations, a HackMIT blog post, was imperfect but reliable, and The Tech made a good faith effort to put them in context and report both sides of the story. The misstep The Tech made was including personal information.
Egregiously, The Tech published the full names of the accused and published quotes from the students’ hackathon presentation that seemed to provide evidence of cheating. The Tech shouldn’t kid itself. Academic misconduct is serious. If your personal integrity is challenged on the front page of a newspaper, it is agonizing. Until you get over it, it impedes your productivity and weakens your health. Was it fair to single these students out and hurt them, when their guilt was unclear?
It wasn’t fair. It was also unethical. Consider the SPJ Code of Ethics for journalism. The Code says newspapers should balance the public’s need to know against the privacy of individuals. The students had returned the award they received to avoid drama and attention. Trashing their privacy was dubious. The Code says that even if information is legally available, it may not be right to publish.
Indeed, the YouTube clip of the students does not make them fair game for celebrity gossip. The Code says newspapers should be careful about publishing full names. The accused were sophomores, and publishing names was not right. The Code says journalists should consider the permanence of the information they publish. In this case, the accusations are forever on the students’ Google results, risking their ability to get jobs. (You can argue the risk is low, but it isn’t zero.) The Tech should’ve showed compassion, and the writers ought to have considered the golden rule: if you want decency for yourself, don’t disgrace and violate the privacy of your colleagues.
To strengthen MIT, personal responsibility is key. That means one should not parade shaky accusations that attack named colleagues. The accusations unfairly hurt the accused and caused collateral damage. Students ought to do good work, find good jobs, and take fair penalties for their mistakes. But by publicly humiliating the accused for perhaps a benign slip-up in an impromptu presentation, The Tech discourages students from competing in student events. Nobody wants to live in such a community. Now, it’s good that journalists find uncomfortable abuses and report them, but The Tech should have been ethical, cautious and fair.
The hundred or so reader comments on the article showed the intelligence of MIT students. Many understood that The Tech had crossed a line. But instead of owning their mistake, The Tech continued digging into the students’ lives and published a 2,700 word follow-up piece full of personal details.
We should expect more from The Tech, and The Tech should have higher standards for how it evaluates the consequences of its writing. The Tech should apologize and remove the names from the article. Until then, it should be viewed as an organization with well-intentioned but somewhat irresponsible leadership. It was a juicy story, but The Tech forgot to have a basic level of respect for their colleagues. A dash of humility is the proper medicine.
Nils Molina is a graduate student in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science.