Outside the Box, a weekly column by Cheryl Hatch

copyright 2014

Last Wednesday afternoon, a news story broke on campus: professor Kirk Nesset had been charged with one count of obtaining and one count of distributing child pornography. Students learned the news through social media: Yik Yak, Twitter, Facebook. Some broke the news to their professors.

Like many students, members of The Campus newspaper staff knew within less than an hour of the first news reports. Unlike their fellow students, the student journalists would be covering the story.

As the adviser to the paper, I communicated with the editors first by text and then by phone. I told them that they needed to report the story themselves and get the facts firsthand. They could not rely on other news sources or swirling speculation and gossip.

I advised them that they could not tweet, post or print anything until they had seen and read the federal court documents with their own eyes. They needed to contact the college administrators for comment.

And they had to go to Nesset’s house and ask if he had any comment, if he wanted to share his side of the story. Neither student who decided to go to Nesset’s house had had him as a professor.

The sun was slipping low behind the trees when an editor and photographer knocked on Nesset’s front door just after 6 p.m. last Wednesday.

He opened the door. They asked if he wanted to comment on the story of his arrest. He said he wouldn’t. They asked if he intended to resign, as a campus administrator had told them earlier. He said he didn’t know and he was in talks with the provost. The students observed that his trademark flip-flops were outside the front door and he was holding his dog while he spoke.

The students are the only journalists who knocked on his door to talk with him, according to Nesset.

The next morning, just after sunrise, I knocked on Nesset’s door. I brought him baked goods. I told him that I had not come as a journalist. I responded as a human being, concerned for his mental and physical wellbeing. He’d been publicly exposed and exiled from his community. I wanted him to know he wasn’t alone.

He told me that The Campus students had been respectful. He said that his house and garage had been egged.

Later that day, last Thursday, the faculty voted to cancel classes and give students and all members of the campus community a time to pause, reflect, grieve and express their emotions, including outrage and anger.

As I listened to comments on campus, I had images in my mind from an old black-and-white movie where villagers grabbed pitchforks and torches and drove Frankenstein from their community. I thought of The Scarlet Letter and Lord of the Flies.

In a meeting in Shafer Auditorium on Friday, I stood in front of a microphone and shared my thoughts.

Kirk Nesset is my friend. He has been kind to me. As a journalist, I am bound to a code of conduct that charges me to be fair and balanced. As a human being, I choose to reserve judgment until I know the whole story.

The FBI affidavit states that he waived his Miranda rights and admitted that he downloaded thousands of files. We don’t know the circumstances under which he waived his rights and admitted wrongdoing.

We know he’s been charged with a crime. He has not been convicted in a court of law. By law, we are innocent until proven guilty. Until the story hits the media. Then a person becomes guilty until proven innocent.

It’s the mob mentality that concerns and unnerves me, the ease and ferocity with which a community can turn against one of its own. As a journalist, I have covered conflict in the Middle East and Africa. I have witnessed what can happen when people turn on one another.

The fabric of civility and community can be so fragile and unravel quickly and violently.

A few people on campus noted that I couldn’t understand the anger and outrage because I wasn’t a mother. As if being a human being weren’t enough. I understand fear and pain.

Others asked if I weren’t afraid. Afraid? Afraid of speaking up.

I am a visiting professor. People believe I might be afraid of losing my job.

I am an educator at a liberal arts college. And I am a journalist. If I am afraid of speaking up, afraid of losing my job for speaking up, then I am not doing my job.

As I told those gathered in the Friday meeting, as I’ve told journalism students on numerous occasions, journalists are truth seekers. We shine a light in dark places and shed light on the facts. It’s not an easy job or a popular one. And it’s a vital one for our communities and democracy.

My journalist colleagues have been following The Campus newspaper staff’s reporting. I had two journalists visiting campus last week when the story broke. Both admitted that they hate covering such difficult stories. Journalists have to keep their personal feelings and biases at bay. They don’t want to knock on the door. It’s one of the worst things journalists have to do. And yet they do it. Just as the students did.

I am proud of the student journalists who volunteer for The Campus newspaper. They have demonstrated a commitment to the standards of journalism: balance, fairness, accuracy. They understand the responsibilities and role of the media on campus and in society.

They have chosen to report and publish when remaining silent is too often the norm.

They have been courageous in the face of their own fears.

http://alleghenycampus.com

http://www.meadvilletribune.com/opinion/article_ed0a9d66-5014-11e4-8a7b-47007d079dd6.html

Cheryl Hatch is a writer, photojournalist and visiting assistant professor of journalism in the public interest at Allegheny College.

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