Letters to the editor: “Getting Personal” (September 2010)

Dear Tam News,

Two weeks ago, while in New York on business, someone sent me a link to the article “Getting personal: Craigslist offers more than just furniture” in the Tam News.  I have to say I was stunned and bitterly disappointed that such a recklessly cavalier and nonchalant perspective towards promiscuous sexual encounterswould run in the school newspaper. And I wrote to Tom Drescher to let him know how disappointed I was that the article was published as written.
At no point did I suggest that the article should not have been written.  I took issue with the fact that the article was published as it was written. I was not challenging the right to free speech, but rather objecting to what I believe (and continue to believe) was an article that could have benefitted from considerably more review, discussion and editing before it was published.  Second, I took specific care to point out to Tom that I hold no fault with the student who wrote it.  Bravo to her for tackling such a sensitive subject.
Having said that, I do have real concerns with two aspects of how the article was written.
First, the foul language.  Here are a few quotes from the article: “we hooked up for awhile and did some sucking and then some f***ing;” “Let Me Worship Your C**k Tonight,” and “Suck Down a Load of Daddy C**.”  Asterisks notwithstanding, please help me to understand how such language helps to fortify the story.

Gratuitous shock talk doesn’t bring the story home.  Your readers are smart, and I don’t believe they require the graphic details to get the story and appreciate the tragedy here.   If the story had been about how an important figure had been caught on live radio uttering these words, then the actual words would have been relevant.  But that wasn’t the case here.  Time Magazine would not have used this language in telling this same story. Tam doesn’t need to use it either.
Second, most disturbing to me is that the story presents Taylor’s naive and misguided notions about promiscuous sexual encounters with adult strangers whom he met online as a fair (almost legitimate) position.
For example:
“‘It’s not as sketch as a lot of people think it is,’ said Taylor.  ‘I’ve never had a life threatening experience.  No sixty-year-old man tried to kill me, nothing like that.’
‘There are people on there and you know they’re safe people because they have the exact same picture used over and over again and you know they’ve gotten with other people,’ Charlie said.  ‘In the Craigslist community, you say that you’re HIV negative, you wouldn’t lie about that.’  In addition to trusting that people won’t lie, the Craigslist community has each others backs, according to Charlie.”
This is so wrong and frightening on so many levels.  Thankfully, most Tam students are probably too young to remember how rapidly the AIDs epidemic swept through our community, preying on exactly this kind of naivety in the 80s and 90s.  Virtually no one was spared.  We were all scarred.  And it was completely preventable.  When I read a piece that includes statements like those in this piece, I can’t help but ask: “where is the outrage here”?  It’s like watching a train wreck in slow motion.  Secondly, and I don’t think I speak from a position of extreme paranoia, but the reality is that there really are adult predators out there who prey on such ignorance – particularly in minors.  And yet the story seems to present Taylor and Charlie’s ridiculously naive assertions as if they were the almost reasonable, considered positions.  They’re not.  They’re rationalizations of a kid who’s too naive to realize he’s playing a game of “Russian Roulette.”
I kept expecting to find a response of outrage or shock from the writer.  It may well have been there, but it didn’t come through.  I would have liked to see someone interviewed who could have  their first-hand knowledge of where such high risk sexual practices often lead.  Someone from The Haight Ashbury Free Clinic; or the Aids Help Project; or maybe a social worker from SF General.
Again, I am not suggesting that this article shouldn’t have been written.  My point is that delicate stories like this demand considerable oversight, exceptional writing, and adept editing – most particularly when the audience is comprised of high school students – so that it doesn’t inadvertently present the irrational, ill-considered and reckless assertions of a troubled youngster as credible and legitimate positions.  And I think adults and other experienced advisors have a role that they can and should play in this process. This isn’t censorship.  It’s just solid journalism.
Thank you for hearing me out.

Best Regards,

Dan Woods

Response from Editor:

Dear Mr.Woods,

Thank you for taking the time to write such a thoughtful email.  We appreciate feedback and are always interested in hearing from the community.
As you can imagine, we’ve received varying feedback on “Getting Personal: Cragislist offers more than just furniture,” from the October issue.  Some of the feedback has been positive and some of it negative.  As the author of the article as well as the editor in chief of this publication, I’d like to explain the reasoning behind some of the decisions we made.
Regarding the language quoted in the article, we did have a very extensive discussion about this, both as a whole class and between editors.  Our adviser, Jonah Steinhart, suggested that the language be toned down, but we exercised our right as a student forum to over-rule him.  Looking back and re-reading the article, I do acknowledge that the language is really explicit and probably doesn’t need to be quite as harsh.  The initial reasoning, which I still partially agree with, was that the explicit quotes really frame the particular way that some students are thinking and talking about sex.  By keeping the quotes as they are, the story allows the reader to decide for themselves how to judge these students, however, this was probably not appropriate for a high school audience.
I do agree that the explicit titles of the Craigslist ads were unnecessary.  At the time, we thought that the less we censor and attempt to paraphrase quotes the more impactful and authentic they are.  However, this was not necessary considering how shocking the topic already is and given that the postings were made by adults and not Tam students.
I agree with you on a lot of levels.  In fact, my only significant reservation lies where you write, “I kept expecting to find a response of outrage or shock from the writer.”  It is crucial that we remain unbiased in our stance and allow the public to decide for themselves whether the actions of these students are justified or not.  The story definitely could have used more edits, but I did my best to make sure each quote had an accompanying paragraph to balance it.  For example, the two paragraphs after the student’s quote about HIV contained statistics about the spread of the disease and examples of people both knowingly and unknowingly transmitting it.  After the quote in which Taylor relates that he’s never had a bad experience from Craigslist is a paragraph about the Craigslist killer.  I think that whether this article is taken in a negative or positive light depends a lot on the reader’s experience and frame of mind.  However, the story does appear unbalanced because the quotes from students stand out and should be accompanied by direct quotes from professionals such as a community psychologist.
As valuable as it is for the student press to be able to exercise free speech, it is also important that we do our job well.  We hope that our readers recognize that we’re not perfect and do make mistakes.  We appreciate all polite but honest feedback and hope to continue to do our best to publish quality work.

Sincerely,

Kristina Willis, Editor-in-Chief