Here’s a puzzle for you: say you belong to a group that gets together regularly to discuss the state of a major industry. Let’s also say that everyone in the group aspires to break into that industry, and some have already got a toe in.
Now suppose that, to the surprise of the other group members, one of your group publishes, on a well-read blog sponsored by a major player in that same industry, an account of the group’s discussions, with quotes from the group leader, whom the author portrays as a bit clueless.
Do you think she should have asked permission before publishing what she heard and saw in the group? Does it make a difference if the group is a journalism class, the author a journalism student, and the blog an outlet of PBS?
Early this month Alana Taylor, an NYU double-major in history and journalism, published “Old Thinking Permeates Major Journalism School” on PBS’ MediaShift blog. Taylor had been “embedded” — that is, assigned the story — by MediaShift “facilitator” Mark Glaser.
Taylor’s piece informs us that she is “not a typical Quarterlifer. Yes, I have a Facebook account. But I also do so much more”; she is “deeply involved in social media” and works for Mashable and Classic Media. She finds Professor Mary Quigley’s “Reporting Gen Y” class a little slow. First, “None of the other students in the class have a blog.” Also, Taylor finds Quigley “lacking in understanding.” For example, the Professor says kids don’t interact much face-to-face, which Taylor finds beside the point because young people use “many forms of communication.” And Quigley requires students to bring the “bulky” New York Times to class. A classmate, unnamed, “is worried of [the class] being too ‘all-over the place’ or ‘disorganized’ or ‘confusing.'” For her part, Taylor thinks she “may not learn too much I don’t already know about my generation and where it’s taking journalism.”
That doesn’t sound like much to get upset about, or interested in, but a follow-up written by Glaser reveals that Taylor has since been asked not to write about the class as it would be an “invasion of the students’ privacy.” As Taylor’s cover has by then been blown, Glaser is able to go considerably deeper than his embed, interviewing Quigley and others about the need for classroom privacy, journalistic standards, freedom of the press etc. (Glaser also reveals that, prior to the embargo, Taylor “had been planning a follow-up report for MediaShift that would include Quigley’s viewpoint and interviews with faculty,” of which we are very sorry to have been deprived.)
On Friday the PBS ombudsman weighed in with a 2,033-word judgment. In the main he is against the unannounced reporting — “Taylor should have been upfront with Quigley and her classmates before she published. If Quigley said no, Taylor would have had to make the choice about what to do” — but punts on further implications, saying weakly that “PBS needs to look into this and perhaps come up with a more refined set of guidelines… NYU probably needs to do the same thing.”
Taylor seems much less stressed by the experience. “I have just been informed that my post is on the top of Romenesko and titled ‘J Student says having to NYT to class is a drag,'” she wrote at her blog shortly after her story went live. “Sigh. My teacher told us repeatedly that her favorite site was Poynter. I think I have some explaining to do, hahah… I sort of enjoy being talked about. It keeps me on my toes and I have learned so much from it.”
Later: “Then Gawker wrote about it. Looks like I’m slowly making my way through the Gawker Media Network… hahah.” Then, after the ombudsman report, “The only thing missing to this long piece about me is…. what I have to say about the whole thing. So, isn’t that a bit hypocritical?”
Maybe she doesn’t know what it is an ombudsman does. In any event, no big; everyone got some publicity out of it, particularly Taylor, who may find it useful in her budding career. If she doesn’t get seduced from journalism by history (“I really like my teacher for this class [“The Renaissance”]. He’s incredibly smart and reminds me of Jeff Daniels, haha”), she could do more undercover reporting at school or on the job. It’s really time someone blew the lid off Mashable, hahah.
Photo via b_d_solis (cc)