Blurring ethical lines

By SpencerRoush

Columbia made national news last week because of one of its professors’ ongoing project using excessive

swearing, humor-ous election dialogue and an immaculate understanding and usage of social media.

Dan Sinker, the Columbia professor behind the popular “@MayorEmanuel” Twitter account, turned many heads after coming out to The Atlantic magazine about being the mastermind prankster behind the anonymous tweets in the guise of Mayor-elect Rahm Emanuel. Sinker revealed his identity after Emanuel said the tweets were funny and would donate to the writer’s favorite charity if the person came forward, but the professor said he was nervous about the college’s reaction.

The college recently distributed “Social Media Guidelines for Employees,” making it clear professors are responsible for their online personas and using explicit language and inappropriate content is against the rules. When Sinker used unsuitable language and behavior, he received a pat on the back.

Two questions come to mind: Did he break Columbia rules? Are the satirical tweets considered journalism?

Yes to the first question, but the latter is debatable.

The administration’s congratulatory remarks probably would’ve been different had Emanuel been a poor sport about it or had the media cast an unflattering light on the college.

But this was great publicity for Columbia and brought national attention to its doorstep, so the administration seems to forgive the bypassed ethical guidelines.

Ignoring the college’s social media guidelines seems like a minimal offense, or at least in this case anyway. However, if this opens the door for more professors to conduct themselves inappropriately or in a biased fashion in the future using this as a precedent, that’s another issue entirely.

It’s important to note Sinker isn’t the only Columbia professor trying to take off his or her journalistic hat every now and then. Another professor actively campaigned for a politician and acted as his public relations representative. But this is a hat not easily removed, if at all.

This is where the debate begins. Were those tweets an act of journalism? Did Sinker act in favor of Emanuel by drawing even more attention to him?

Jim DeRogatis, Columbia English lecturer and esteemed music critic, said he thought so. He wrote a scathing critique of Sinker’s successful online escapades, but the harsh words weren’t because he doesn’t like him. In fact, they’re friends. He even wrote Sinker a letter of recommendation for graduate school. But

DeRogatis said he didn’t like Sinker showing Emanuel favoritism and trying to remove himself as a journalist throughout the journey.

According to DeRogatis, journalism is already questioned by the public and Sinker’s acts only added to the already rampant problem. He said later he may be wrong, or “perhaps it’s 50/50.”

DeRogatis said he extended an invitation to debate the matter in an open forum to discuss new journalism and writer’s boundaries within media, which would be beneficial to professors and students alike. Sinker wouldn’t say whether he accepted the invite or not.

This is an opportune time to analyze what new media is and how journalists fit into the digital reporting realm, but we’ll see if that happens.