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USYD media assignment not big on ethics

GO AHEAD prank, make my day.

Memo to media studies lecturers and tutors anywhere on earth: Feel free to tell your students to write for Tharunka.

We love getting contributions, we love being controversial, we love making people think and we love it that you love us.

But let’s keep it real, can we?

When a slew of email submissions was received by the editors this month, excitement that the student body was engaging with the publication filled the office.

As one of the editors at Tharunka, I was surprised and impressed by the sudden influx. Granted, not all the articles were worth publishing, but the thought seemed to be there, nonetheless.

So, we started picking through the best of the pitches, preparing to tell the authors how to make them better and mentally picturing how the finished stories could be presented on the page.

But early on Monday morning, a more unsettling article was submitted by University of Sydney (USYD) student, Joshua Tassel. The article described an assignment being undertaken at USYD by Media Politics students under the tuition of Dr Peter John Chen.

Here’s how the assignment sheet starts:

‘Project 2: Prank Tharunka

Using your understanding of the process-orientation of journalism, design and execute a false story that you attempt to get published in the UNSW student newspaper, Tharunka. You will need to research the aspects of journalistic practice used by the paper, what type of issues are likely to be covered, and how you would go about getting the issue into the paper. Once completed (successfully or not), reflect on the practice of PR that uses an understanding of media practice to promote particular messages in your final report.’

Suddenly, the strange influx of contributions made more sense. UNSW’s august journal, Tharunka, was being pranked, by another university.

Having now spoken to a number of USYD students in the course involved, we know a lot about the pranking plot.

This assessment will make up 25% of the students’ grades for the semester in Chen’s class. The only publication available for “pranking” is Tharunka, and there is no scope for pitching a real news story. Reading back over all the articles we’d been given over the course of April and May, it seemed fairly clear that most of the articles were either too vague to be real attempts at stories, or purely fictitious.

Whistleblower Joshua said that he was one of the few students who had issue with the assignment.

“I haven’t heard anyone else react the same way as I have, and I actually copped some criticism from people quite close to me today when I told them what I’d done,” he said.

“I can see Peter’s point in regards to teaching us about the manipulation of the journalistic creed, how media outlets can be usurped and misled, and how our theories of media operation stand up to the test of an actual submission,” Joshua said.

“However, I don’t know why Tharunka in particular was chosen as the sole target, and neither do I understand why we were instructed to plant a fake story.”

“I want to be a journalist one day, and I want to adhere to a moral code wherein lying and deceitfulness are strictly prohibited. Not only would this assignment contravene that moral code, it would go against all the codes of conduct I feel apply to the situation.”

Interestingly, the assessment task seems to go against all the ethical codes of conduct presented in the course outline, which reads:

Academic honesty is a core value of the University. The University requires students to act honestly, ethically and with integrity in their dealings with the University, its members, members of the public and others.’

“It doesn’t live up to their own standards of academic honesty applied to the students. Under no circumstances would that assignment pass an ethics test if an honours student proposed it. It contravenes the ethics that Peter himself has attempted to impart upon us. If it has passed an ethics test, I would be incredibly mystified.”

In his submission to Tharunka, Joshua noted that there was no honest way to execute the assignment.

‘My group in particular began by asking ourselves ‘how on earth would we get this published?’ Suggestions included lying, impersonation, libel, and stories that could not possibly be followed up on by editors. Generally speaking, we have sought to manipulate you, plant a false story, and be the stereotypically smug Sydney University Arts student in the process.’

While another student — who spoke to us on condition of anonymity — seemed concerned about the backlash caused by being honest with Tharunka, Joshua said he wasn’t particularly concerned.

“I fully understand the potential implications of being a whistleblower, but the fact remains, I’ve done this too late and let it fester for too long. As someone told me today, ‘this could be your foot in the door to journalism’. And that’s sure as hell NOT why I’m doing this.

“I’m not doing it for any self-motivated reasons, nor because I feel like I would do poorly in the assignment, but because I feel it’s the right thing to do. It needs to be made clear that a practice such as this is completely impermissible.”

Some of the articles submitted to Tharunka as part of the pranking plot were believably dull, while others were completely ridiculous. One pitch, suggesting an article on how to create rainbow crossings, was laughably transparent. A number of students, claiming to be from UNSW, even used their USYD email addresses. A quick Facebook search told us the rest. When asked for UNSW student identification, two students just made them up.

One attempt at humour was titled, ‘You Made the Right Choice’, and suggested a number of ridiculous reasons for UNSW’s supposed superiority over USYD.

‘As any Facebook meme or procrastinating Year 12 student will tell you, USYD looks deceptively like Hogwarts. But where is the magic really at? UNSW founded its first Quidditch team a year before USYD. Our team ‘Snapes on a Plane’ won the Triwizard cup last year, beating USYD with the same teamwork Harry used to beat Voldemort. So for all witches, wizards and Slytherins at heart, come to UNSW. All are welcome…unless you’re a Hufflepuff.’

Another article’s headline read, ‘Bachelor of Tarts?’, and claimed, ‘It has emerged that Jennifer Hawkins has been nominated for an Honorary Degree from the University of New South Wales.’ To save the embarrassment of students involved in a compulsory assessment task, they will remain unnamed in this article.

Ending his submission on a high note, Joshua stated, ‘The measure of journalistic standards as embodied in this task seeks to foreground deceitfulness, a trait nobody could possibly desire in a journalist. It’s predatory, awful, and lacks any kind of morality for the potential outcomes for Tharunka.’

The University of Sydney academic who set the assignment, Dr Peter Chen, however, defended the assessment.

“On a number of levels my motivation is actually very good,” he said. “It’s all about graduate attributes,” Dr Chen told Tharunka.

He said that the assessment task was an applied research task which allowed students to critically analyse their findings, having dealt with the process of publishing in a busy newsroom.

He suggested that, as an editor, I should be interested in the social experiment. “This is where I’d like you to be pleased; I oriented my students toward topics that I thought were significant.”

Defending the assessment, he said, “I don’t think there’s anything particularly unusual about stunt journalism.”

Reasoning that they would have been more “easily identifiable” for him if they’d actually been published in the newspaper, Chen offered that, in hindsight, he thought asking his students to plant false stories was a “bad idea”.

When asked whether the assignment had passed an ethics test, he admitted that it had not.

“If I was overseeing an Honours student, yes, I would have had to go through all the ethics tests, but as it is, just for teaching, all I have to do is to get my head of department to sign off on it. This is where you’re going to kill me, if you ask whether or not I did do that, well, no, I didn’t.”

We won’t kill you, Peter.

In fact, we’ll be glad to have your students’ contributions. Real ones, that is.

Lily Ray

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