Irresponsible Journalism

I was shocked today when I opened my copy of the Hoot to see the article “Irresponsible Fees” by Alex Schneider.  Let’s consider the term “irresponsible.” Princeton wordnet defines it as “showing a lack of care for consequences.” Oxford English Dictionary defines it as “not answerable for conduct or actions; not liable to be called to account.” I scoured the article for a single warranted argument as to why this fee could be viewed as “irresponsible,” yet failed to find a single one.

The fee certainly shows a concern for consequences; in fact its purpose is to remedy the negative environmental consequences of our life at Brandeis. Student housing is responsible for a significant amount of carbon emissions, and failure to implement this fee shows a lack of care for those consequences, and places the entire burden of offsetting them and achieving carbon neutrality by 2050 (a goal the University has pledged to meet) on the University. It would be irresponsible to ourselves and to our planet not to contribute towards this effort.

The second component of responsibility is accountability, and the fee certainly meets that requirement. The Brandeis Sustainability Board, which would be created by the fund, is a completely separate institution from Students for Environmental Action. In fact, I personally suggested to the creators of the amendment that they include a representative from SEA on the Board, and was told they were not doing it for this very reason. The student component of the Board will consist of the SU Treasurer, the Chair of the Social Justice Committee, and then 2 independently elected student representatives. The election of these two representatives by the entire student body means that they are held accountable to the student body, a fact which distinguishes them from every student run club on campus. On top of that, the fee will also have external accountability: it includes members of the Brandeis faculty and staff, who have the benefit of years of experience and a different viewpoint, as well as independence from the student body, all of which will ensure that the funds are used in a responsible manner.

While the article fails to prove any sort of irresponsibility on the part of the Sustainability Fee, it does show a great deal of journalistic irresponsibility on the part of both Schneider and The Hoot’s editors. Schneider shows a lack of social responsibility to his readers in his failure to check the facts. A brief list of the facts that Schneider got wrong, and that anyone reading either the publicly available documents or the writings in support of the fee on SEA’s website, facebook group, or in response to The Justice’s editorial last week could see are blatantly untrue:

1) The fund supports the club, Students for Environmental Action. This is false, SEA can’t touch the money, does not have a representative on the board, the board is accountable to the entire student body, anyone can submit a project, and it is specifically designed to accomplish projects that SEA is unable to handle.

2) The fee came about as a result of SEA losing the vote to be secured. A simple phone call or email to any member of SEA would reveal that the club has been working on this amendment, meeting with senators and administrators, and drafting documents since the beginning of the Fall semester. This statement approaches libel.

3) That the fee is a circumvention of F-Board funding. “Student activities” are limited to just that – student activities. While the sustainability fund would fund student proposed projects, many of these projects would be infrastructure changes which do not constitute “student activities,” such as electric vehicles for facilities workers, drought resistant landscaping, or LED lampposts. Others could potentially include changes to class curriculum, such as green chemistry programs in labs.

Schneider makes other arguments which are also very flawed, although they do not necessarily fall under the category of factually incorrect. He claims that other options for funding exist, and gives the example of solar panels. While in this instance the market worked in favor of the environmentally sustainable option, economics 101 teaches us that there are plenty of externalities which the market fails to correct. There isn’t a company for each of the proposed projects mentioned above that would enable us to implement them without increasing costs, and we have a responsibility to offset our carbon footprint. Second, he claims that every club would choose to fund themselves in this manner. First, this would require each of the clubs to put forth the enormous effort that SEA has put into the Sustainability Fee all year, which few would be willing to do. Second, it would require them to gain support of the Senate and 2/3 of the campus, which very few proposals would be able to do. Third, there are numerous factors which distinguish this fee from funding that goes towards clubs such as the nature of the projects, the existence at other universities, and the involvement of faculty, all of which is discussed extensively above.

Although it pains me to think of the damage caused by Schneider alone, the majority of the fault lies with the Hoot’s editors. Clearly a conscious decision was made not to fact check, which is irresponsible on the part of the organization and represents a failure of journalistic integrity. This article is an embarrassment to the organization which chose to publish it without a simple phone call, or if they were unwilling to do that, any examination of the documents that are publicly available. And the real tragedy is that the article was published just days before the vote, without the opportunity for a printed response. This shows a true “lack of care for consequences.” Undoubtedly, this article will sway the decision of numerous voters before Monday, and my response, if ever published, won’t be able to be read until next Friday, days after the vote is complete. If the vote fails this Monday, the Hoot bears a portion of the responsibility for the harm they have caused to our environment, and the damage they have done to the reputation of our University. That, and not the fee, is the true irresponsibility.


7 thoughts on “Irresponsible Journalism”

  1. Hey Nathan, I’m not really sure where you see a hegemony of campus environmentalists, and I think we’re actually probably a minority faction given the number of groups that prioritize social justice. Even if this hegemony does exist, resistance for its own sake is not admirable; there needs to be some reason behind it.

    I also don’t think that there’s a difference between what you’re saying the fee does and say, the technology fee, the student activities fee, the meal plan, the cost of tuition, etc. Taken to the extreme, that logic would demand that everyone pay per class (and each class be priced differently according to value), everyone pay dues for their individual clubs based on what they personally take away from the club, no one be required to live on campus or have a meal plan, no one be required to pay a technology fee and instead charge people for things like bandwith usage and the renting of phones, etc. The University already makes people pay the average cost to meet its needs, and that’s probably the only way most of the things it does are sustainable.

    The fee is also unique in that it is an attempt to offset the negative externality caused by our presence at the University, and so it’s really more of a price correction than a levying of a fee to support a particular groups agenda.

    Regardless, that is a debate to be had, and were the Hoot to publish an article opposing the fee for the reasons you had given, I don’t think anyone would be nearly as angry. There will be some dormstorming and tabling going on tonight and tomorrow, and I hope that we will be able to persuade you to change your mind, but if not, I’m glad your vote against it has been formed by a difference in opinion rather than misinformation.

  2. This seems like a bit of an over-reaction, it was in the opinion section of the paper. A section that is for columnists to give their opinions on current events. He did just that.

  3. The University’s has committed to carbon neutrality by 2050 and backed that commitment up with millions of dollars of carbon reducing investments. Students have routinely spoken, through the New England Wind Fund and recent Bottled Water Reduction Poll, and shown their support for sustainability.

    While you can argue the individual liberty of each individual to support the cause they choose. We believe the BSF constitutes an institutional commitment

    While it could be argued that not everyone supports campus wide wireless internet, hell some observant jews can’t even use it one day a week, we all pay the same Technology fee regardless of our actually use or feeling on this cause. Of course sustainability is not wireless internet, but the Univeristy is paying money to reduce our individual carbon footprints, it is providing a service and we must recognize this fact.


  4. The article may be riddled with misinformation, but at least somebody had the guts to resist the hegemony of the campus environmentalists.

    Shame on the Hoot for poor fact-checking, but I’m still hoping this vote doesn’t pass. No faction should be allowed to levy a fee on unwilling students to support its agenda.

  5. Alex, I don’t really have an issue with an opinion piece that bashes the Sustainability Fund, obviously it’s a vote and people are entitled to their opinions. There are parts of the article that make some valid points, but the main point of the article assumes SEA can use this money, which is just blatantly false, and anyone who read the facebook page, SEA website, or the documents online would know about this. Or they could have made one simple phone call and solved the whole problem. Opinion pieces have more leeway than articles, but you can’t really have a “disagreement over the facts.”

    What we’re stuck with is an article in a broadly read campus publication convincing people not to vote for something for all the wrong reasons, and there isn’t an opportunity to win back that readership with a response or clear up the misinformation or even let them make an informed decision not to vote for it based on facts rather than lies.

    You say it’s not widely read, but that’s relative; since the number of voters for the last amendments tended to fall a bit above and below the 200 range, if twenty people read it and decide not to vote for it, that’s potentially 10% of the vote. Since only 33% need to vote against it for it to fail, that’s a pretty big impact. My guess is it’s worse since it’s likely that more than twenty people read the Hoot who don’t read the facebook group etc.

    When a newspaper causes that big of an impact by spreading lies, that’s irresponsible.

  6. I think there is a lot of opposition to this fee out of principle; if passed it forces students to pay into something, albeit nominally, they may not care for and only trivially benefit from.
    that said, it’s eight fucking dollars.

  7. Josh, I think your main argument against the Schneider article is that he conflates SEA with the environmental cause. I understand that you and all of SEA are pissed off about this (I noted some angry fliers atop the Hoot stacks today), but your attack is a little strong compared to the sin in question. Your last paragraph especially was out there. “Clearly a conscious decision was made not to fact check.” Really? Can you stand by this statement? Having a disagreement over the facts doesn’t mean that they are being irresponsible. Overall, you are getting too emotional and confrontational over an opinion piece that probably won’t be too widely read anyway.

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