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“Letter causes stir on UMass campus” – ethical questions

by on February 2, 2012

UPDATE # 5 (2/7): A video with student reactions to the letter incident.

UPDATE # 4 (2/7): A Collegian interview with Molander.

UPDATE # 3 (2/3): Letter to the editor from the Dean of Students.

UPDATE # 2 (2/2): And here’s a video that Molander posted on YouTube, titled “The not allowed to make friends club: Day 1.

UPDATE # 1 (2/2): Here’s Molander’s explanation of his actions. And here’s a scanned copy of the letter.

Let’s talk about this series of Collegian articles a little :). We started this discussion on Tuesday, but didn’t have much time to devote to it.

So have at it!

ARTICLE #1: “Letter causes stir in UMass campus

  • What do you think about the way this article starts (“A controversial letter…)? What exactly makes this letter “controversial”? What qualifies as a “controversy”? Does the fact that the Collegian devoted an article to this case play any part in the letter becoming “controversial”? What does this adjective do to/for the readers?
  • What do you think of the words used in this article to describe the reaction to this letter (“stir,” “controversy,” “shook up”)? What do you think they are backed by?
  • Who are these “several University of Massachusetts students” the second paragraph refers to? Is it right to attribute the negative reaction to unnamed people? Does the fact that the article includes one named source who was “kind of freaked out” at receiving the letter make up for the initial vagueness?
  • Speaking of sources, what do you think of the authors’ choice of interviewees: 1) the UMass PR guy (who says virtually nothing meaningful), 2) an “employee of UMass facilities” (who talks about what the police are doing), 3) Molander’s father (who has no idea what his son meant to say in that letter), 4) a friend of Molander’s (who offers a rationale for the letter, discusses Molander’s character, and provides some info on Molander’s actions post-letter), 5) a student who received the letter (who was “freaked out” by it), 6) another student who received the letter (who has “a lot of admiration” for Molander – Apparently, she does not belong to that part of the campus that was “shook up” by the “controversial letter”…). Plus two quotes from the actual letter and a quote from Molander’s Facebook status. Were these the best available sources? Would you have contacted other/more people?
  • How exactly did Paul McGregor know what the police knew? Do the readers need to know this?
  • What do you make of this paragraph: “While it is unconfirmed, the Collegian believes there were at least three police officers in plainclothes waiting within the Blue Wall at around 6 p.m., though at the time of publication it was unclear whether the individuals sighted were actually police officers or acting in any way connected to Molander’s letter.” If it’s unconfirmed, should the Collegian mention it? What made the Collegian believe that “there were at least three police officers in plainclothes waiting…”? What’s the source for that info? Are the authors hedging too much (“unconfirmed”… “it was unclear”… “or acting in any way connected”)?
  • What do you make of the father’s statement (“It’s a work in progress”)? Does that imply that the father does, in fact, have some idea of what “the work” is? Do the readers need this statement explained in any way, especially in light of his denial (“I don’t know what was going through his head”)?
  • Molander’s friend: “I mean, he speaks some strong words…” You mean, in that letter? What strong words? (All we get from the article is that Molander “outlined his frustrations with the University”). Or does the friend mean that Molander habitually uses strong words (“but he’s one of the kindest people…”)?
  • Is there any other info you would have liked to see in this initial piece?
  • What do you think about the comments at the end of the article?

ARTICLE #2: “Molander withdraws from UMass

  • What do you think of the Collegian’s use of two student sources?
  • What exactly are these students saying: (“a very non-threatening letter” but “reminded me of a cult”; “took a lot of brass” but “just not for this school”)?
  • What exactly does this mean: “We have such a group identity here that people will deny it to the death that they want to make a difference”?
  • Do we need to be told what the second student “suspected” about what might have happened to Molander had he stayed at UMass?
  • Should the issue of “the social atmosphere at UMass” (see first commenter) be discussed some more?

ARTICLE #3: “Staff editorial: Molander misinterpreted by University

  • What do you think about the Collegian’s decision to write a “staff editorial” on this issue?
  • What do you make of the assertion that the letter had no “discernibly malicious content”?
  • “…barely pausing to suppose the story could have greater depth than their gut reaction might indicate” (para.5). Could the Collegian have provided some of that “greater depth” in their articles?
  • “And if it is true, and the administration did ask him to leave…” Shouldn’t the Collegian wait until they receive confirmation that Molander was indeed asked by UMass to leave before they opine on the issue? (Also see the fourth comment underneath the article: “You don’t know the whole story.”)
  • Are the analogies with the “confessed rapist” case and the “repeat perpetrator of sexual harassment” case (para. 8) justified? Are they explained enough?
  • Is it fair to say that the University pressured Molander to leave “for trying to reach out and organize peers” (para. 9) – and not for, say, “freaking out” students?
  • If the students’ reactions showed that “they scare easily,” “pass judgment on others swiftly” and “barely [pause] to suppose the story could have greater depth” (para. 5), why is the “anxiety” they felt “understandable” (para. 10)? Are the authors now retreating on their denunciation of student reaction?
  • How does the Collegian know that Molander’s intentions were not violent (para. 10)? They haven’t spoke to the administration about this, they haven’t spoken to the police, they haven’t spoken to a psychologist, and they haven’t spoken to Molander himself. So far, the only person who gave us any insight into Molander’s motivations was his “former roommate and friend” (unless you also count the father’s “work in progress” comment as meaningful info).
  • What do you think of the first comment under this editorial (“maybe that dude wouldn’t have withdrawn from school if he’s [sic] name wasn’t plastered all over this paper…”)? (Also see the responses that comment received).
  • Was this a case of freedom of speech under attack, as the tenth commenter alleges?

Overall, what is your opinion of how the Collegian covered this story?

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3 Comments
  1. My interpretation of the three pieces is how sad Tyler Molander is/has been of living on a big campus. I would like to see proof of his Facebook posts than have hearsay. I would be interested to read statements by the UMass Amherst therapist(s) and by the police with the Resident Assistant and roommate of Molander’s. Professionals and people who have 1:1 interactions with him could prove/disprove his intentions. It is impossible to say how his letter made students feel when I am an older off-campus undergrad. The quotes given seemed to give accurate views for young kids. It is easy to speculate and surmise for good copy. Yet, it does not bode well to put leading sentences in without concrete proof. Were there really three undercover cops at The Blue Wall? I didn’t like the staff Editorial piece as it seems to be “a puff piece” for The Collegian without credible names. The reader comments on the different pieces gave good insight. I would think that Chancellor Holub would send out an email for damage control to the sensitive students. I did just find Enku Gelaye’s 2/3/12 Letter to the Editor and have some hope. Perhaps the silver lining to this problem is that people awaken to the loneliness and cliques schools have.

  2. Here, we have a student who is living in isolation and loneliness at a school. He tries to reach out to people on campus by unusual means. Even though his intentions were not harmful, I believe that he should have, at some point, known that he goes to UMass and that at such a large school as UMass it is hard to bring people together. He probably didn’t expect his letter to have this big of an impact(bad or good) on students.
    As far as the article is concerned, I think, it needs more direct proof from the polices. I would definitely have looked for more people to talk to. Usage of words like “stir”, “controversial”, I definitely felt like it was more balanced towards one side. I feel like the author came more in contact with those who feel that they victimized by the letter.
    I think the two sources in the second article was trying to say that there are a lot of feel the way Molander felt but just are accepting the way the campus is because of it’s size. Also, my interpretation of the quote was that the way he approached them is not a problem, its the minor usage of certain words and the way he conveyed certain ideas came to some students as a harassment, or a threat.
    The university’s response to the case seem to be a bit extreme. After all his intention was only to make more friends. And I think that his innocent intentions could be read from the actual letter. I just think that there could have been better alternative decisions to the student that the school could have given him.

  3. Overall, after reading the first article that the Collegian wrote, “Letter Causes Stir in Campus,” was at least misleading. The title alone states a negative opinion about the letter already, and as we stated in class who is “the campus,” clearly not everyone has the same opinion. I think the overall impression of this story stems from the immediacy of getting a story out as soon as possible. I think that the Collegian staff made a good effort when it came to trying to gather sources. However, only talking to Molander’s father, who obviously doesn’t know exactly what is going on does not help the article. I think that stating the letter was controversial is a fair impression. Controversial, to me,m means simply that there are people who back up Molander’s approach of sending a letter and others who do not. But at the same time, I would argue that the public did not have enough information about the intent of Molander and his letter to have an opinion one way or another.

    I believe that the Collegian’s article, though they did include a quote from a student who was not disturb by the letter, let the article sway to a negative approach without enough details. I would argue that it is this sort of coverage that adds fuel to the fire against Molander. The article was too reactionary. I am glad to see however that the Collegian realizes how serious this incident is that they have continued to run additional stories about the subject. I just cannot get over how the Collegian decided to use the “Campus” and “several students”; this is totally a cop-out. I do not believe that the Collegeian had a right to state the feeling of the entire campus and then clearly state two direct opposite quotes from students. Clearly the campus can not feel anything, only individuals do.

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