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SUNY Oswego student’s email shows importance of journalism etiquette

On November 13, 2012


Alex Myers should be able to teach his fellow journalism students a few things about ethics and etiquette now.

Last month, the SUNY Oswego journalism student and Australia native was required to write a feature for class on a public figure. He chose Ed Gosek, the school's hockey coach. Myers sent out an email to hockey coaches at Cornell University, SUNY Cortland and Canisius College, looking for the opinions and feedback of rival coaches for his piece.

It took two mistakes to get Myers nearly kicked out of school. First, Myers identified himself as a staff member of the Office of Public Affairs (he is, but this had no relevance to the piece he was writing) and then insisted the coaches, "Be as forthcoming as you like, what you say about Mr. Gosek does not have to be positive."

It's not clear if email etiquette is part of the journalism curriculum at Oswego, but perhaps it should be.

Relationships within a single school can be quickly repaired and brushed aside, but the email went out to coaches at multiple schools requesting opinions on Gosek. There's a much bigger relationship to deal with here, and while there will probably not be any hard feelings that linger over the mistake of a single student, Myers' go-ahead email clearly struck a harsh chord.

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) reported that Myers received a letter from Oswego President Deborah Stanley informing him that he was being placed on interim suspension, was banned from all campus facilities and was required to evacuate his dorm by the next night. After the suspension was reversed, he had to write a piece to share with other students in journalism classes that tells what he learned in his experience.

It does raise questions about the authority figures in the school. The university cited a section in its code that covers "harassment, intimidation, stalking, domestic violence, or creating a hostile environment through discrimination or bias toward any individual or group of individuals" to justify its punishment for the student. It isn't clear what part of the email falls into any of those categories. What you have is an inexperienced student journalist who doesn't know the protocol of contacting sources - somebody who should have gone through the schools' media relations departments to talk to the head coaches and make sure things were worded correctly.

But Myers deserved the first charge against him. While he never directly claimed to be working on a piece for the Office of Public Affairs - which is why the school charged him with dishonesty - why would you refer to yourself as a staffer for a piece that you're working on as a student? Maybe he thought he would be looked on as less important if he was "just a student" as opposed to a school employee, but honesty is the best policy.

Myers made it clear he was not looking to write a fluffy piece praising a public figure for his contributions to society. He was looking for the goods, hoping somebody would give him his big break. But whether or not the punishment was too severe, the way in which Myers went about obtaining his information was a question in ethics.

Journalists - from amateurs to seasoned veterans - need to stop playing the "it doesn't have to be positive" card in hopes that it will land them juicy, scandalous details. It's not a witch hunt, and those facts will fall into their laps naturally if they know how to ask the right questions. That's the art of the craft - not just asking questions, but also knowing which questions should be asked, and Myers instantly violated that.

Without question, there was no reason for the harsh punishment he originally received in regard to his "harassing" email, but it's a learning experience. He can walk away now knowing that he did make a major error in judgment and can take something away from that.



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