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Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Profiling at UNC

It's unusual that a political controversy escapes the blogs I normally read. It took the Actuarial Outpost to reveal the brouhaha about a pro-profiling column by Daily Tar Heel columnist Jillian Bandes. So I read the column, and the followup articles, and decided I don't accept the conclusions reached by the leadership of the Daily Tar Heel in her dismissal.

The rationale was that 1) comments by interviewed people on racial profiling in security screening followed a hyperbolic description of the screening process ("sexed up") and 2) the comments were solicited during a general discussion on being Muslim in America in the post-9/11 world.

Now, I'm sure the editors didn't check with any screeners with the Transportation Security Administration as to whether they viewed the screening process as intimate or sexual in any way. They didn't, and were right not to, because both Ann Coulter's paraphrased comment and Ms. Bandes' comment in the column were clearly hyperbole.

The column is about racial profiling in airport security, and that's not misrepresented in any way. It's in the title of the column. And it was very clear to me Ms. Bandes' sources were commenting on racial profiling in airport security, and not on the need for overly enthusiastic searches. It's very hard to misunderstand, when the next two words after the controversial sentence couplet are RACIAL PROFILING.

Here's my take: the editors have set a very high standard for their opinion columnists in the future, as well as any reporters who like to spice up their writing with flavorful words. Each writer must make sure any quotations or paraphrases from interviewed subjects follow only the question as specifically worded, and they will have no margin of error. If anyone else is unhappy with the placement of their quotation in an article or column, then the editors should expect to hear calls for the reporter or opinion columnist to be fired, for the exact same reason you have given for Ms. Bandes' dismissal.

Then the Muslim students responded with a letter to the editor. They complain that Ms. Bandes expressed that they believed racial profiling isn't a big deal. What are we to take from their complaint that she didn't state "I'm going to write an opinion column endorsing thorough screening for Arabs at American airports, and I want your opinion on racial profiling?" Would they have lied had the question been phrased in that manner? The students then classlessly responded with a comment about Abu Ghraib, assigning a possibly slanderous description of the author's motives.

As you might expect, the columnist was fired. I hope we can find another reporter or columnist that makes the same mistake, so that we can see if the editors are consistent in their interpretation of journalistic ethics. If a reporter in a similar situation is not fired, then we know politics played a role in Ms. Bandes' dismissal.

Disclosure: I was once on the editorial staff of the Daily Tar Heel. Even though I wasn't a reporter, I had to place some calls to gather information for writing editorials. I would identify myself as with the Daily Tar Heel. I didn't say "I'm writing an editorial reflecting the conclusion of the editorial board, which is X. Now can I get some comments?" I never was a journalism major, so was I violating journalistic ethics? I doubt it, since undercover investigations are common, and reporters wouldn't hesitate to report on something picked up over an open mike (Clymer) or an enhanced photo (bathroom break).

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