Six Cornell University students recently stole the spotlight from The New York Times.
What was their rather dubious claim to fame? Simply put, they each gave Times staffers a fake name. And the Times believed them, without double checking.
The misidentifications appeared in a story published this past week under the headline “Last Call for College Bars.” Within the article, freelance reporter Courtney Rubin focuses on the changing drinking habits of undergrads in the social media age.
Among Rubin’s findings: Students are determined to get drunk faster, favoring hard liquor and mixed drinks over beer. They increasingly want to be sure a bar is “worth the trip” before heading there through friends’ texts and status updates. And they often spend the morning after a night of heavy drinking untagging themselves from embarrassing Facebook photos.
The morning after the piece’s posting, these apparent trends took a backseat to the factual errors embedded within it. As the high-profile student-run blog IvyGate first revealed, six Cornell University seniors appearing in the feature — the article and an accompanying photo — apparently do not exist.
An editor’s note now implanted beneath the story online notes, “None of the names provided by those students to a reporter and photographer for the Times — Michelle Guida, Vanessa Gilen, Tracy O’Hara, John Montana, David Lieberman, and Ben Johnson — match listings in the Cornell student directory, and the Times has not subsequently been able to contact anyone by those names. The Times should have worked to verify the students’ identities independently before quoting or picturing them for the article.”
Rubin expressed genuine surprise at the mass duping, while confirming she did actually speak to the students.
“I’m honestly shocked by this,” Rubin told The Cornell Daily Sun. “I’m looking at my notebook, going over my notes … It’s all here. I can clearly see where it was in [the bar] where I spoke to them and what they were wearing. Why would I make up names? I don’t make stuff up. Short of asking people for ID, you [assume] that when people give you a name, they represent themselves as who they are or say ‘I don’t want to be quoted.’ If I asked them for IDs, they probably would’ve given me fake IDs. … I assume they gave me the names on their fake IDs.”
New York Times Styles editor Stuart Emmrich soon after told Washington Post media blogger Erik Wemple, “I probably should have realized that, in a state where the drinking age is 21, there was a likelihood that some people hanging out in a college bar might be underage and prone to lying about it. … It never occurred to me that some patrons would not only let their fake names be published, but would also do so while having their pictures taken. Unfortunately, that’s exactly what happened.”
One of the takeaway lessons stemming from the incident, according to Wemple: “Journalists do well to double as paranoiacs. Never trust anyone, no matter how much truth serum they’ve drunk out of an oversize cocktail glass.”
Another lesson: Students do not suffer mistakes, or perceived slights, silently.
The IvyGate fact-check is one example. Another example comes from Cornell veterinary medicine student Nikhita Parandekar. In a Cornell Daily Sun column, she points out that while the piece focuses on undergraduates the main photograph shows graduate students.
Parandekar also takes issue with Rubin’s tone toward student socializing and what she sees as a lack of context in the article for why and how often student drinking occurs.
As she writes in the column, headlined “Last Call for Legitimate Journalism”: “The not-so-subtle jibes at … the pre-gaming/hook-up culture seem to be the author venting frustration more than informing readers about anything at all. … I was disappointed in Rubin’s article because it’s the kind of journalism that gives reporters a bad reputation — unashamed about being biased, half-researched, and unnecessarily antagonistic. This is the first time that I’ve ever thought that the crisis newspapers are facing in terms of readership and accessibility might actually be due in part to the newspapers themselves and not just the electronic world that we live in.”
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