Saturday, March 7, 2009

Thanks, Emilie... And some of my scattered thoughts.

It really was a privilege to have Emilie take time out of her schedule to come talk to our class. It really gave me a new perspective on the Peterson story and how hard it must have been to deal with it. Like Nancy said, we can sit and be armchair journalists and say, "I can't believe they did that. I would have done this, this, and that instead." But a lot of us (at least myself) have no idea of the pressures the newsroom presents, what with pressing deadlines, disagreements between editors, financial pressure, etc. I really appreciate Emilie's upfront honesty and candor about her experience with the story. I could tell it really took a toll on her to make the best decision possible. She clearly defended her decision but was humble and open-minded to other points of view presented during the discussion. She openly admitted her regret of running the first story about the incident (the "Friday story") on the first page. I could see why she regretted it-- it was a class B misdemeanor (police blotter material)-- not front page news. However, when he was identified by the police, that turned into a different issue.

I understand Emilie's rationale for printing the story- I consider Peterson a public figure in our little valley. Logan is considered a college town, and Peterson was a USU professor and department head, and he has does interior design work for many people in the valley. Furthermore, he was USU's interior design program department head. Utah State is nationally recognized for this program, and many know Peterson from this position. And his creative arts class- he has been teaching this for years, and due to the class size, many, many students know who he is. I feel it is the students' right to know what is going on with their professors and on their campus. And who knows how many times he has been involved with this sort of stuff on campus- we don't know.

However, I can see why people would have qualms about identifying him. (I go back and forth myself.) It was only a class B misdemeanor, and the story definitely causes severe harm to his family (specifically his wife and daughter who work on campus). The SPJ states that journalists should balance a criminal suspect's fair trial rights with the public's right to be informed and that they should seek to minimize harm. But easier said than done, right? It might have been better to print the Peterson story after the court hearing, but again, that's me being an armchair journalist.

I also think the gay issue plays a role in the story being published. We are a conservative town in a conservative state, and the "gay thing" is a controversial issue. I'd like to think that there would be just as much of a stir if the "fooling around" in question were with a woman. I'd like to think that, but it's probably not the case. The outing of a gay person is a huge deal for them, and it's unfortunate that Peterson had to be exposed this way (now whether he considers himself gay, bi, whatever- I don't know). But still, these issues should be private- between him and his wife. Also, I'd like to know what Kim Burgess thinks about the issue, since she worked for a gay-central magazine.

I feel like I'm arguing with myself here. Overall, I think it was a good idea for the story to be published. It happened on campus, I consider Peterson a public figure, and in a smaller, conservative town where this stuff isn't common, in this case I think it was OK to print a story about a class B misdemeanor. The public has a right to know. But who knows, I may change my mind. I am, after all, just an armchair journalist.

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