Sunday, September 23, 2007

Do reasons justify the crime?

The whole “Jena 6” situation is such a controversial issue right now that I was surprised I could only find an article about it in Slate. I couldn’t find anything about it on any of our other recommended sites which I think is kind of strange, even The Daily Helmsman reported on the incident. After reading The Daily Helmsman’s take on “Jena 6,” I felt like the author was trying to manipulate me through exclusion of information and by including quotes from only one point of view. I know that you don’t have to present information in an objective way and that your writing should express your opinions, but I think that the front-page story for a campus newspaper should at least acknowledge another point of view especially when the tone of the article is that of a formal report. I also think that a report on an incident and a description of the university’s response to it should include factual information. So I decided to compare our own newspaper’s report on “Jena 6” to Slate’s and to what actually happened.

First of all I want to say that I think that our campus newspaper usually has some interesting, well-written articles. My boyfriend really likes The Daily Helmsman and makes an effort to always read every article of every issue. This alone shows me that it must be good because Sam usually hates reading and I don’t think that I have seen him voluntarily read anything other than Carl Sandburg poetry or Sherlock Holmes stuff during all the time we’ve been together. Anyway, I don’t want this post to turn anyone away from our school newspaper because I don’t think that this article is a good reflection of the things that are normally printed.

Travis Griggs, the author of the Helmsman article, describes the occurrences at Jena high fairly accurately except for one huge detail. He fails to mention that the six black students attacked the white student until he was unconscious and were said to have repeatedly kicked his head after he passed out. Griggs includes quotes from a few different people that all essentially say the same thing: the white students should have been charged as well. If you knew nothing of the “Jena 6” events before reading this article, then it would probably seem like an incredible injustice to only charge the black students involved in the school violence and not the white students who fought back and provoked the black students, but knowing a little more about what actually occurred I didn’t see things this way.

Slate’s article didn’t actually describe the events that took place, but it at least included the actual crime that the six students are being charged for. The article was mainly about reporting the various opinions held about the “Jena 6’ events so it was fitting that author Michael Weiss didn’t spend much time on the basics of the incident. Weiss included a wide spectrum of views in his article ranging from those who believed more white support was needed for the “Jena 6” cause to those who think the offenders should go to jail. While I thought it was really interesting to hear all these different opinions, I wish that Weiss had revealed where he stood on the issue. Weiss’s writing was pretty neutral, he mentioned the major facts without using strong language and had quotes from people who saw the situation in different ways. If I had to say how he felt, I think he probably feels that the charges of second-degree battery and conspiracy to commit battery are a little harsh judging from the quotes he included.

Before I talk about what I think, I want to mention something from the Helmsman article. Griggs begins by describing “Jena 6” as a national controversy, and he should because there are so many different opinions about the occurrences, but he doesn’t follow up his description by actually including any ideas that contradict his own and those of others who agree with him. He of course makes the Jena authorities out as the bad guys, but never mentions why this is a national controversy. I know that this issue isn’t the whole nation against Jena, La, so why aren’t conflicting views presented in this article? I think that if Griggs wanted to express his views in this piece then he should not have tried to sound informative, and if he wanted to be informative he should have included at least two sides on the issue. Over all, this article seemed poorly written and inappropriately constructed in regards to its purpose.

I completely disagree with Griggs on this issue. I certainly don’t think that the charges against the six students should be dropped. The issue is not whether or not these students had a good reason for attacking the other student, the issue is that they violently beat him until he passed out and continued to do so after he was unconscious. These six students broke the law when they attacked the student and they should be punished for it. The fact that the white students were horribly offensive and racist toward these black students does not give them the right to resort to physical violence. The idea that the white students involved in the incident should be charged equally doesn’t make sense because they did not attack anyone to the point of unconsciousness. I do think, however, that the white students should be harshly punished by their school for the deplorable ways that they insulted the black students. If the circumstances were turned around and six white students had been provoked to attack a single black student, I would still insist that the six students be similarly charged. I don’t think race should be a factor in this issue, nor do I think that the reasons why the six students attacked the other student should matter. When someone commits a crime, they should be punished accordingly.

1 comment:

Travis Griggs said...

Hi Lauren,

I really enjoyed reading this post. I stumbled across it while searching for criticism of the Helmsman’s coverage of Bradford's murder investigation.

I wrote the Jena 6 article, which was the subject of this post, and I'd like to address some of your criticisms.

The Jena 6 story was originally intended simply to cover the student rally that took place on campus, and the U of M NAACP chapter that was organizing a road-trip to join the protest.

Well, as it turns out, and to my surprise, very few people on campus knew any of the back story about the events that occurred in Jena La. during the months leading up to the protest.

So I found myself in the difficult position of summarizing this incredibly complex and much debated situation--in about four paragraphs that were allowed by newspaper space and time restraints.

After reading your post, I agree that I should have included more details about the attack, but I was unable to independently verify any of the details of the attack beyond that the victim was admitted to the hospital and released later that same day.

Ironically, given the criticisms in your post, I chose not to include the detail about the victim's admission and same-day release from the hospital--because I felt it would unfairly portray the attack as a minor incident.

Instead, I wrote that the victim was attacked (verified), the assailants were charged with 2nd degree murder (verified), and civil rights leaders were protesting because they claimed the charges were disproportionate to the crime. (Civil rights protesters interviewed and quoted).

That story was not intended to be stand-alone coverage of the entire controversy. If comprehensively examined, that story could (and probably will) fill a book, and still leave out many details. Goodness knows, its discussion has already filled the talk radio waves and the blogosphere for months.

All of the opinions, and points of view that you cite in my story came directly from Professor David Acey, an expert in the history of the civil rights movement, and current day race relations issues, and Ashlee Roberts, the president of the U of M chapter of the NAACP.

I felt that their contributions more than explained why students at the U of M were protesting. And that was all my story was intended to report on.

Your allegations of personal opinion and bias… They seem to be based on a preconceived notion that reporters are supposed to write in a nonobjective and opinionated way.

In your first paragraph you said, “I know that you don’t have to present information in an objective way and that your writing should express your opinions…”

This couldn’t be farther from the truth.

I’d ask that you reread the Jena 6 story without assuming it includes writer bias, and see it for what it is: a story about student protesters standing up for what they believe in, and their disappointment that more students aren’t cognizant of current events.