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University faces criticism for journalism syllabus

BIRC publishes statement after assignments require students to profile DACA recipients in community

By
University News Editor
Thursday, April 12, 2018

Community members have criticized and expressed disappointment in the University after it publicly emerged last week that the course, INTL 1802W: “International Journalism” asked students to find and profile DACA recipients living in Providence.

The incident has raised questions about ethical practices in journalism, the sensitivity training offered to faculty and the University’s process for approving course syllabi.

INTL 1802W: “International Journalism”

Taught by Stephen Kinzer, a senior fellow in international and public affairs, the seminar aims to give students “direct experience with the job of writing journalistically about world affairs … through a combination of writing exercises and classroom discussions,” according to an online copy of the course’s syllabus.

Because students could not travel abroad, the course sought to fulfill its goal by asking students to cover local stories related to global issues and produce stories “based on close reporting of affected people.” Specifically, Kinzer asked students to concentrate their coverage on the “fate of the so-called Dreamers,” according to the syllabus. 

The course includes five mandatory assignments. While the first requires students to “immerse themselves in an immigrant environment in the Providence area,” the following four explore different aspects of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program and culminate in a final comprehensive profile piece of a DACA recipient that examines their “day-to-day life.” The course syllabus does not suggest that these pieces are meant for publication. Students in the course were eventually given the option to interview recent immigrants more generally if they could not find a DACA recipient to interview.

Criticism and journalistic ethics

Last week, the Brown Immigrant Rights Coalition published an open letter on Facebook that condemned the assignments as “exploitative journalism” and criticized the seminar’s particular focus on Dreamers. BIRC received feedback from concerned Providence community members who had been asked to comment by Kinzer’s students, according to the open letter.

“The work produced in this (course) is not directly aimed at the uplifting and liberation of the affected people,” John Lopez ’18.5, Maria Camila Arbelaez Solano ’19, Alexis Roman ’21, Angel Mendez ’20, Kathleen Wu ’20 and Javier Juarez GS wrote.

“In previous times that I’ve spoken to media, it’s something that I’ve chosen to do for a particular purpose,” said Krissia Rivera Perla ’15 MD’21, a DACA recipient who was contacted to participate in the profile. Rivera Perla says she always assesses the likeliness that sharing her experience could inspire change before agreeing to an interview.

But in an email to The Herald, Kinzer wrote that the continued presence of anti-immigrant sentiment in the United States paints “young immigrants as a hostile horde that has come to our country to steal what belongs to us. The only way to counter this stereotype is to humanize these young people.”

“Journalism is the way to do that. People who want to support and defend immigrants should be banging on the doors of media outlets demanding more coverage of their situation,” he added.

In addition to learning more about journalism, Amy Kerner ’06 GS, a current student in the class, said she took the course to better understand the “complex immigration debate” in the United States.

“I was really excited to take a course where I could go off-campus and learn more about the greater Providence community,” she said, adding that she also wanted to “learn how to transmit important political topics through the eyes of ordinary people.”

“I agree with Professor Kinzer that there is a need to have better coverage and discourse around the topic of immigration,” Lopez — the chair of BIRC — said. “What me and BIRC disagree with is the lack of care, preparation and thoughtfulness … that he has opened in structuring this course.”

Specifically, BIRC members were concerned that the narrow focus on DACA risks misrepresenting the issue of immigration, particularly in the United States. In addition, students voiced larger questions about the media’s sense of entitlement when covering the stories of people belonging to marginalized communities.

For the Brown community to truly understand the complexities of global migration, academic scholarship “needs to be expanded beyond a limited focus on DACA to a greater one that considers it alongside (Temporary Protected Status), (Deferred Enforced Departure), refugee status, forced displacement and the undocumented state itself,” according to BIRC.

Rivera Perla added that DACA recipients have already been humanized while others experiencing undocumentation, such as TPS and DED holders, have been deprived of attention and support. A majority of Americans feel that Dreamers should stay in the United States, as Politico previously reported.

Rivera Perla also contested Kinzer’s idea that journalism necessarily helps its sources. The idea of  “young people knocking on doors is like asking the media to tell our story as if they can tell it better than we can,” she said.

“It should rather be that young people should rise and share their stories and the media should facilitate that,” she added. But seeking out stories of DACA recipients with the aim of bettering their situation presumes that the media has ownership of these stories, she said.

Amelie Vavrovsky ’18, who attended two sessions before dropping the course, said she felt that “to go into a community that we have no connection to and extract information seemed unethical to me.”

“The best allies are the ones who ask the people who are undergoing certain strife what they need and not so much determining what they need,” Rivera Perla said.

While she felt that the students in class had good intentions, Rivera Perla said asking individuals for their immigration status “lacked sensibility” and “placed everyone in a vulnerable position we did not choose.”

“These are not just stories. They are lived and traumatic experiences and we will not stand for people taking advantage of them and causing further harm,” BIRC wrote.

In a follow up email to The Herald, Lopez wrote that students in the class should receive a form of comprehensive training because they were being asked to “dig for and to hold extremely sensitive information about Providence community members.”

During course meetings, Kerner said the class discussed ethical dilemmas in journalism on multiple occasions. “If someone agreed to speak with us, we should always present in detail clearly what we were doing and what the assignment was.”

“It was important that people agreed to speak with us,” she added.

University response

In its open letter, BIRC called for better training for faculty and staff working with immigrant populations.

Maud Mandel, dean of the college, said that the University debated making training related to diversity and inclusion mandatory for faculty and staff while creating the Diversity and Inclusion Action Plan. However, the University decided against the practice. “Compliance-required training: Not only does it not work, but it actually has the opposite impact,” she said, citing scholarship on the subject.

Student criticism of Kinzer’s syllabus also called into question the University’s process for approving course syllabi.

Mandel explained that course syllabi — when proposed for the first time by visiting faculty — go through a two-fold process of review by their departments and the College Curriculum Council. When courses come up for review in subsequent years, the CCC does not necessarily review their syllabi, she said. “There is an expectation at the department level that chairs are looking into syllabi. … They’re the ones with expertise.”

In this instance, Kinzer’s course did not include assignments on DACA recipients when first reviewed in 2015, Mandel added. Last semester, the International Relations program — headed by Nina Tannenwald, senior lecturer in political science — approved Kinzer’s most recent syllabus.

“The associate director of the IR program and I reviewed the syllabus for Stephen Kinzer’s course in 2015 (when it also had to go the CCC because it was a new course) and again last fall before he taught it this spring. We had no objections to anything on the syllabus,” Tannenwald wrote in an email to The Herald.

“I’m open to hearing from students. … I’m not trying to defend the practice, I’m just trying to explain how we got to where we got,” Mandel said.