Opinion: The Julie Herman Controversy is All About the Context

Crossposted from Hub City Forum, a Raritan River Review blog.

By Ariana Cerminaro

By now, most people have heard about the latest media firestorm involving Rutgers athletic director Julie Hermann, as it has caught national attention. For those who aren’t familiar with what happened, at first glance it seems simple: while guest lecturing in a media ethics class, Hermann said it would be “great” if The Star-Ledger went out of business.

The timing couldn’t have been worse. The class was held in February, but The Star-Ledger announced on April 3 that it was laying off 167 workers, the same day the independent student website Muckgers published the original article, the first to include her comments. NJ.com’s response to Hermann’s quote can be read here.

Hermann’s comments about The Star-Ledger were only a small portion of her presentation to the class and only a small portion of the story run by Muckgers. She also discussed her sexuality, coaching standards, the athletic department subsidy, and how she believes unionization in college football is unsustainable.

What I want to discuss for this post is the NJ.com article — specifically, how Steve Politi, the writer of the article, chose not to include the full context surrounding Hermann’s comments, which helped turn it into national news.

Having heard an audio recording of her lecture, here was the context: During the class, a student said it seemed that a lot of people at Rutgers had issues with The Star-Ledger and asked Hermann, “What would you say is their motive behind constantly pulling down Rutgers athletics?”

“I think it’s to sell papers,” Hermann said. She went on to describe how we’re now living in the time of headline news and that news organizations are fighting for readers’ attention. “Every time we buy, every time we go to it, the Ledger or any other media can go to their sponsors and go look, we get 350,000 hits. That’s what keeps them financially afloat.”

At this point she made the first of her more well-known comments: that The Star-Ledger nearly died in June, because it didn’t generate enough advertising. The class’s teacher, Bruce Reynolds, said, “Yeah, and they might die again next month.”

“That’d be great,” Hermann said. “So I’m going to do all I can to not give them a headline to keep them alive because I think I got them through the summer.”

Once again, this class visit was in February. Hermann was answering a leading question from a student that was likely to elicit a negative response, and jokingly responded to a comment that was made by Reynolds.

According to the article on NJ.com, Politi heard the recording of the interview. When he spoke to one of our reporters, he later said that he hadn’t listened to the full recording and believed that he’d provided the full context. However, he did fail to provide the full context of why Hermann said those quotes, and as a result made the whole situation look worse than it really was.

It’s my belief that Hermann wasn’t calling for the Ledger to go out of business. She demonstrated in the audio recording that she understood what they did, even if she didn’t like it.

As a journalism student, and knowing that there are other journalism students at Rutgers, this whole thing provides us with an important lesson: always, always provide context for your quotes. While the Muckgers article did provide the context, it was scattered throughout a disorganized article.

NJ.com then took a small portion of the Muckgers story without providing any context at all for the quotes, while completely ignoring everything else that was in the first article.

Context is important. Otherwise, you may be fanning the flames of something that really wasn’t bad at all, while completely ignoring the much bigger picture: like how one of the things Hermann discussed during the interview was unionizing football.


Audio from the Media Ethics and Law class, featuring Julie Hermann

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