Follow THIS LINK to review for yourself the contents of the latest issue of the University Statesman newspaper – there is a full slide show revealing the pages of the printed paper on the right hand side…just look for the picture of the topless woman with a Statesman T-shirt draped over her breasts – and believe me when I say that most pages of the paper are covered with full-length images of similar quality. I thought this was worth a blog post for a general audience because the latest issue was so unbelievably salacious and despicable that I felt obliged to send a letter to the editors and to the Dean of Students at Stony Brook requesting they take action to repair the damage they may have done to many of the students on campus who unfortunately had to see this newspaper all over main campus today.
What follows is the precise language in the letter I forwarded to the dean of students and to the editors of the Statesman. I hope you will at least agree with me on the first two points I make if not every word of my rebuttal.
To the editors of the Statesman,
My name is Matthew Souders – I am a graduate student in atmospheric science at Stony Brook University and an increasingly active member of the campus community on a couple of fronts. I will confess, however, that I am an infrequent reader of the Statesman as graduate studies and my personal relationships consume most of my free time. A colleague and friend of mine walked into my office holding your Valentine’s Day issue in her hands and a look of shock on her face. I took the paper and my jaw dropped. Now I understand that the goal of this issue was to have a little fun with the romantic holiday, but I believe what you actually pieced together was in extremely poor taste and reflects very badly on the university and I’ll give you a few brief reasons why I feel that way.
Diversity education at Stony Brook does not begin and end with ethnic backgrounds. There is a diverse range of students, community members and other customers here from differing religious upbringings, with different creeds, of all different ages and having different body types. While I recognize that this paper does not need to please everyone on campus all of the time, we all have a responsibility to be sensitive to the effects our actions may have on others who are different from us.
What message does this issue – filled wall to wall with thin and fit people in their underwear (if that) – send to people struggling with their body image? More than 20% of New Yorkers are obese and another several percent have an eating disorder like anorexia or bulimia. This kind of imagery is precisely what gives people like that the sincere (and yet false) belief that they are not acceptable and drives them to unhealthy eating habits. I know this from second-hand personal experience (several friends with eating disorders who started down that road because they believed they were unattractive thanks to imagery like what is in the Statesman this week).
What message does this send to Catholics and Orthodox Jews and Muslims on campus? You’re welcome here, as long as you don’t mind us broadcasting at maximum volume imagery that you find offensive? Oh and BTW, everyone on campus is doing it as often as possible, so your beliefs don’t matter to us? Is this what relationships (the focal point of Valentine’s Day) are about to the editors of the Statesman? Titillating sexual escapades and half-naked students?
What about the parents who bring their children to the swimming pool or the SAC to eat a meal? Are they not a part of the campus community on a daily basis – and might those parents not want their children to see such imagery at a young age? Or have you forgotten that you are the primary newspaper on campus and therefore publicly displayed and free to take from news-stands all across campus? You have essentially put soft-core pornography in the hands of children if their parents aren’t quick enough to spot it. As the leader in campus news and social commentary, you have a responsibility to respect the wide range of people who might be your readership and to present them with material suitable for all audiences.
One of the burdens of being the publication that Stony Brook chooses to make free to all students is that you are seen by a fairly large audience as the leading authority for local and school-related news and information. Today, you have done a great disservice to journalism by parading this naked (literally!) cry for attention in front of the school when your job is to present the news. There is a place for social commentary in the Statesman, but that place is not on the front cover and that commentary should be related to the news of the day. For reference, please see any of your favorite professional newspapers – the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Boston Globe. They have an opinion section and they have a culture and the arts section and those are the places where commentary on relationships and sex stay (and those commentaries are generally selected due to the relevance to their audience).
You may think this was just all in good fun, but this single issue of the Statesman has convinced many people I know on campus who might have been on the fence before that you are not a serious journalistic source and not worthy of their time and attention. And not because you presented controversial material, but because you presented material that is likely to have been factually untrue or highly distorted with no effort to make sure that what you printed was true. There is a section where you asked students to relay their wildest sexual encounters. Everyone I’ve talked to agrees that most of the quotes you printed were likely fabricated due to the peer pressure placed on students put on the spot to come up with something attention-grabbing to say. Professional journalists would never print such quotes, even for the sake of a chuckle, without some sort of cautionary note.
Stony Brook University is not a social club, though the social lives of students matter here. It is not an online forum for swapping stories, though freedom of expression is important to defend on a college campus. It is not a resort home or a parental getaway, though we all hope that students have some of the best times of their lives while they’re here. Stony Brook University is a place of higher education first and foremost. You are here to learn and this school is here to further potentially life-saving research, prepare you for the future, and turn a profit as well, like it or not. This is a business, and while you certainly had the first amendment right to print anything your heart desired, rights aren’t free…they come with responsibilities, and yours extends to preserving the image of your writers, the students and the university. Even though the students pictured in your vaguely pornographic full-page inserts were all willing volunteers, do you really think you’re doing them any favors when they go to get a job? This newspaper is on the web and employers do Google searches of perspective job applicants to see if they are serious professionals. The girls dangling their bras behind their backs and pawing seductively ta guys two at a time are not going to fare well in the future if potential employers find out they appeared in this issue. And whoa betide any of them who might have designs on public office!
The public image of the students aside, the public image of the University was certainly tarnished by this issue. When I finish my Masters degree and parade that credential in front of employers, I’d like to be proud of the place that appears in the degree. You, in some very important ways, represent this school – you owe the institution that will be giving you a degree some day better than to make it look like a den of iniquity unconcerned with serious journalism or educational fulfillment.
To close – I think it’s important to point out that I’m not arguing that sexual issues have no place at all in The Statesman, but a few simple changes would have addressed most, if not all, of my concerns. I direct your attention to your rival paper, the SB Press. Their most recent edition included an article discussing an event on campus that dealt with sexual issues. In that article, they present the factual accounting of a game of Family Feud involving dating beliefs of the African American students on campus. It was an example of actual journalism. There were no topless images, no sensational headlines, and no printed falsehoods. If The Statesman wishes to present a picture of sexual culture on campus to celebrate Valentine’s Day, it might be well advised not to put borderline porno on the front and back pages (out of respect to parents and children), limit the discussion to news-worthy topics, and leave the silly and the titillating stuff to the opinion pages where such things belong. This kind of attention-seeking behavior does not become you, the editors of The Statesmen. I hope you put a little more thought into the effect your work has on others and on our opinion of your publication in the future for all our sake.