The Tiffany Martínez case and journalistic malpractice in the first degree

Journalism RIP: gone and apparently forgotten

Tiffany Martinez journalism malpracticeHere’s a sampling of the Google News headlines this morning for a search on [tiffany martinez]:

  • Professor Leaves Racist Note on Student’s Paper – Yahoo News-22 hours ago
  • The broader implications of unfairly accusing a Latina student of plagiarism – Inside Higher Ed-Nov 1, 2016
  • Professor accuses Latina student of plagiarism for using the word hence – The Grio-Oct 29, 2016
  • Latina accused of plagiarizing after using ‘hence’ in essay – New York Post-Oct 30, 2016
  • Latina college student is accused of plagiarism because she used the word ‘hence’ in an essay – Daily Mail-Oct 29, 2016
  • Latina College Student Used ‘Hence’ In Paper, Is Accused Of Plagiarism – Highly Cited-Huffington Post-Oct 28, 2016
  • A Professor Circled “Hence” On A Latina Student’s Paper And Wrote “This Is Not Your Word” – BuzzFeed News-Oct 28, 2016
  • Student accused of plagiarism by professor for using the word ‘Hence’ – Gistmaster (blog)-8 hours ago

Notice anything?

If not, let me point something out. Each of these heds states as fact that a Suffolk University instructor attacked student Tiffany Martínez in front of her class last week. In some cases, the allegation of racism is taken at face value, and in others it is accepted without question that she was accused of plagiarism.

As I noted in my analysis of the Martínez blog on Sunday, what happened in that classroom may be exactly as she described it. Or maybe not. The student’s explanation of what happened is devoid of nearly all detail and in total amounts to 160 words in an eleven-paragraph post. We have an idea what the assignment was, but we have literally one word from the paper as evidence.

As some of her defenders take great pains to point out (see the comment thread in my earlier post), Martínez wasn’t trying to make a factual case, she was merely telling us that something happened that made her feel bad – specifically, says one: “…it’s a PERSONAL BLOG POST where the student was sharing her feelings following this offensive experience, not a piece of reporting on institutional bias in academia.”

Given all this, then, it’s clear that the stories on Google News are guilty of some severe journalistic malpractice.

  • They take as verified fact a post that offers no details and only one source.
  • They take as fact that the motivation of an unnamed professor was racist. If, in fact, the event happened in the way it is suggested, any college professor can explain perfectly legitimate, non-racial reasons for it. Again, see the comment thread from my Sunday post.
  • The stories assert that the offending instructor was a professor. This fact is not in evidence, as I explain in the previous post. Indeed, there is reason to suspect that he or she may have been an adjunct or teaching assistant. So far we have no idea who was teaching that class. Maybe this seems a small point to you, but this mistake is a fundamental error that would earn a student in some intro newswriting classes I know an F. If you can’t manage the day one fundamentals of J201, there is no reason to trust you with anything more demanding than the entertainment beat.
  • While it is safe to assume that Suffolk is conducting an internal investigation, and there are almost certainly witnesses who can shed light on the events of that day, we do not at present have those results handy, meaning that the only evidence we have before us is that brief snippet of narrative in the Martínez post. This is enough to justify a thorough investigation. It is not enough to justify the headlines and stories in the news today.

In short, what we have here isn’t merely iffy reporting on an academic dustup. It’s a microcosm of what has happened to journalism in modern America. These headlines are certain to entice Web surfers to click, and if the “reporters” can so easily be suckered into outrage then how can we possibly expect a rational reading by the average product of the American ed system, which has been stripped of all pretense at teaching critical thinking.

The result: an emotionally pitched, unsubstantiated claim of injustice has been instantly transformed into cold, hard fact.

In the end, we may well learn that what Martínez suggests in her post is exactly what happened. If that transpires we should all be outraged and demand that the university take steps to make things right with an outstanding student. They need to assure that the rest of the faculty is trained to approach each student fairly, because this can’t happen again. Every other school in America should follow suit. The offending instructor should be evaluated, and if this is deemed something other than a very correctable mistake on the part of an otherwise dedicated teacher, he/she should be gone. At the minimum, said instructor would owe Martínez a huge apology, and I’m not a fan of private apologies for public offenses. The apology should happen in front of the class where the whole thing started.

In the meantime, the media is playing its audience – that’s you, for the record – by sacrificing its mission to inform to clickbaiteering of the worst sort.

Next time you look at the shambles the country is in – and the coming few days should afford ample opportunity for reflection on that question – understand that while the stories are different, the underlying problem is the same.

3 replies »

  1. I have had exactly that argument with one of my teenagers, I used the terms “former” and “latter” and later suggested that she might use that in an assignment. They responded by saying they would never use those words. Probably correct too, there are probably a few terms like even that word ‘hence’ under discussion here that would be rarely used in writing today and if you see them, they would be used by 40+ year olds like myself. I’ve been outmoded apparently.

    It was probably reasonable to ask where that came from, but it would be much better to discuss with a student in private than say anything in front of the class especially when it has not been verified to be the case. That’s beside the point though (probably another archaic use of language?) as where the media has gone with that. On reading this and the previous post it’s a stretch to get racism out of this situation and if there was plagiarism it did need to be addressed at some point.

    I don’t think outrage is needed here, nor investigations, drawing someone over the coals, firings, or retraining of every teacher out there. Students are warned about plagiarism and what would be needed here is that the person involved be told to handle this better and to apologise for the mishandling of the incident. It seems it remains to be resolved if there was any plagiarism, and at some point it needs to be addressed that it can be a valid point to raise with a student and that there is nothing wrong with a teacher when they feel they need to do that. We shouldn’t stop policing that just because one person felt hurt or it was mishandled once. It’s important because it is cheating and it is much more unfair to let it slide, harming students that do work hard and submit their own work.