Letter to the Editor: Fake News
by Brian Barry | published Nov. 21st, 2018
Jamil Khashoggi died after engaging in a brawl, California firefighters should fight fires with rakes and an RIT student fell to his death on Halloween evening. Do you believe any one of these examples of “fake news?” You shouldn’t. In Washington, we have journalists to keep administrators honest. On campus, without the Reporter, we have no one to do so.
For about forty years, I have been teaching a course on Death and Dying in the College of Liberal Arts. During those decades, I have urged students not to practice denial, to eschew euphemisms and to confront death head on. For a number of years, I have tried to persuade Student Affairs Vice Presidents to handle student suicides transparently. Failure to do so supports the idea that suicide is somehow shameful to the perpetrator and embarrassing to those around him or her (usually him). It may discourage other students battling similar urges to come forward for help lest they too be stigmatized. It hides from students the truth that college can be a stressful, even overwhelming time, and lessens their likelihood of identifying the danger as soon as it manifests itself.
In the past, RIT and other colleges have handled such situations by declaring that students have died “unexpectedly” or “suddenly.” While technically true, this is hardly an effort to be informative. It does nothing to advance our mission as an educational institution. This year we slipped further away from “truth telling.” The provost urged faculty and staff not to speculate but to describe the death as a “fall.” This is nonsense. The Monroe County Sheriff’s Department labeled it a suicide. Why haven’t we? We, not they, have a mission of acquainting our students with truth no matter how uncomfortable. Falls are accidental; students who jump, leap or plunge from a window are not accident victims.
The best thing we could have done to retain our integrity was to tell the whole truth from the start. The next best thing would have been the former euphemistic approach. However, other deaths can be legitimately described as “unexpected,” and now all deaths which fit that bill could raise questions in student minds. If we use euphemisms initially and then provide the facts as they become certified and available, that is preferable to never disclosing the truth.
Undoubtedly, the institute’s desire to protect the privacy of the student and his family has merit. Compassion is a worthy goal. However, it does not trump truthfulness, especially for an educational institution. The means that the student chose to kill himself did not suggest any concern with privacy. Many students could not avoid encountering his body amidst the residential area, and the trauma they experienced ought to be accurately accounted for.
I hope that in the future, RIT will embrace an honest approach and that the Reporter will hold them to account.
Brian Barry Ph.D
Associate Professor of Psychology an