By Joe Green
As a graduate of the University of Virginia (College ‘93) and a Phi Kappa Psi brother, the last two weeks have been a roller coaster of emotion and reflection.
My recent relief over the revelation that the horrible event recounted in Rolling Stone did not occur at my house (Phi Psi), if it happened at all, based on current reports, is tempered by the understanding that there are problems in society, at college, and no doubt at UVA concerning sexual assault. Clearly, there are major issues that need to be confronted about the relationship of men and women and alcohol. Ultimately, this conversation needs to happen. Like many others, I want my daughter (now 11) to have a healthy and constructive experience at a school like UVA. It would be sad if the irresponsibility of Rolling Stone (and numerous other media outlets) distracted from that much-needed conversation.
That said, “journalists” and others need to reflect on their behavior in this affair as well. This commentary concerns the irresponsible assertion of facts, never substantiated and since refuted, intended to malign a particular group of people that a segment of the media apparently hold in disdain.
Aside from the potential negative blowback on an issue (sexual assault) that deserves attention, there is the element here (as in the Duke lacrosse case) of people condemning those they disagree with or culturally dislike, largely based on stereotypes and incomplete facts that even a modest amount of journalistic integrity would have unearthed.
The depiction of the University and my fraternity in Rolling Stone was a transparent hatchet job, riddled with superficial cliches, that exposed more about the biases of the author and editors than it did to promote the cause of awareness about sexual assault. Describing the students as “tanned and overwhelmingly blond” is a simple, if innocuous, give away that the author simply could not be credible (the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains are hardly conducive to such widespread appearance) to the point that one questions whether she ever visited the grounds or instead relied on preconceived notions. Similarly, my fraternity does not have a “reputation of tremendous wealth” nor do the brothers predominantly come from elite and privileged backgrounds as depicted in the article.
In the over two decades that I have been associated with Phi Psi, I have been most proud that my brothers come from all across the country, a variety of economic and ethnic backgrounds, and public and private schooling, and, most of all, reflect a cross-section of what most objective people would consider “good, regular guys.”
While a segment of the University student population may reflect the negative stereotypes put forth by Rolling Stone, the fact is that the vast majority of students – both in and out of the Greek system – are intelligent and thoughtful people. The Rolling Stone article, and the horde of undisciplined media that piled on afterwards, did a great disservice to these honorable men and women.
Which brings me to the December 3 News-Press editorial “Should UVA Even Exist?” In addition to being a Phi Psi I also served as news editor of the University Journal (at the time a daily student newspaper on par with the Cavalier Daily). Though I do not claim to be a journalism expert, suffice to say that the journalistic standards I learned were vastly superior to those exhibited by Rolling Stone and the News-Press. As summarized in the Code of Ethics issued by the Society of Professional Journalists, journalists should: “Take responsibility for the accuracy of their work. Verify information before releasing it …. Diligently seek subjects of news coverage to allow them to respond to criticism or allegations of wrongdoing… Avoid stereotyping. Journalists should examine the ways their values and experiences may shape their reporting.”
The News-Press claims to be guided by a Platform with similar standards: “Play no favorites” and “Above all keep it clean, fearless, and fair.” Where was such integrity and humility in your editorializing on the UVA story?
While the journalistic failings are self-evident and have been widely detailed, what is perhaps more shocking is the reactionary response from other supposed journalists, including the News-Press. Calling for a boycott of UVA and to “run [it] out of business,” or for example, as others have done, abolition of the Greek system, on the basis of unverified (and ultimately false) claims, in service of preconceived biases, is abhorrent and dramatically reveals the narrow prejudices of the proponent.
One can dislike fraternity culture or the conservative reputation of UVA (Charlottesville may not be as “edgy or progressive” as Berkeley or Cambridge, but it has a strong liberal streak, like many college campuses, under the veneer of tradition). However, the rapidity and zeal with which the University and Phi Psi were condemned exemplifies an utter lack of journalistic integrity that, frankly, makes one ask: Should the News-Press even exist?