Marooned / Not So Smart

Notes from the 2/13/19 issue

Marooned

On Monday, the editors of the UofC campus newspaper, the Chicago Maroon, decided to publish a perp walk photo of a young Black man being hauled out of a university building in handcuffs by the Chicago Police Department. He was allegedly part of a group that robbed a strip mall on the Far Southwest Side before leading a police chase to Lake Shore Drive and eventually to Midway Plaisance, where they crashed. At least, that’s according to the Chicago police, whose word, along with that of the UofC administration and a couple students whose classes were rescheduled, is the only source for the Maroon’s reporting.

The photo—more damning than a mug shot—will remain published, according to a defiant statement provided to the Weekly by the Maroon’s editors-in-chief, Pete Grieve and Euirim Choi. “We do not yet know whether the individual in the photo is a minor—such information can sometimes take up to several days to confirm—but we would have arrived at the same decision even if he is,” they write. “There is no law that prohibits a publication from taking photos of minors, so our decision rested solely on whether the news value of the photo outweighed the potential invasion of privacy.… We, the editors-in-chief of The Maroon, concluded that our readers had the right to know all available details about any suspects involved.”

It’s true: there’s no law prohibiting the Maroon from publishing these photos. But there’s another code that ought to govern journalistic behavior—generally called “ethics”—and by this standard the student paper has failed. While publishing mugshots or other photos of arrested people has long been a practice at newspapers around the country, it is a practice that serves only to further the interests of the state carceral system, which is not the job of a newspaper. Publishing these kinds of photos of minors is especially reprehensible, since even the justice system acknowledges that adolescents should be judged by a more forgiving standard in court. (It bears repeating that, as of this writing, the youth in question has not been charged with a crime, nor will the CPD release his age.)

Furthermore, context should have given the Maroon special reason to refrain from publishing the photo. The Chicago Police Department’s history of wrongful arrests is too lengthy to begin to get into here; seventeen more convictions related to corrupt Sergeant Ronald Watts were vacated the same day this photo was published, by the way. The UofC’s private police force, meanwhile, has a reputation of racially profiling and harassing South Siders who cross into the UofC’s campus. Unlike the Maroon’s editors, we see no “news value” that overrides these crucial reasons to avoid publishing such a photo—especially given that the suspects in this case are already in police custody. We’re not alone in our disapproval—at least three former Maroon editors were among the many online who disparaged the Maroon for publishing the photo.

In recent years, the Maroon has doubled down on its investigative reporting, with impressive results. The student organ has at times done valuable reporting on the missteps of the UCPD and on UofC’s plans to influence and develop surrounding communities. It bears mentioning, though, that this incident is remarkably similar to another from 2016, when the Maroon published the full names and Facebook avatars for a bunch of high schoolers concerning a “Halloween Purge.” This week’s post is a step back in that direction. We hope the Maroon reconsiders and pulls the photo from its website, and that its next slate of editors, being voted in next week, shows better judgment than its current leadership.

Not So Smart

For a “smart city” supposedly aiming to become “data-driven,” Chicago has yet to prove that it’s anywhere close to technologically ethical or competent. ProPublica Illinois and WBEZ Chicago reported this week that Chicago Public Schools, with a $2.2 million grant from the DOJ, has been monitoring its students’ social media presences for gang-related posts for the last four years. Two intelligence analysts along with CPS’s Gang School Safety Team—a police unit— collected tips from social media, which then led to “interventions”: a conversation between the student, a school administrator, and a police officer. Most often, students would be encouraged to delete the posts. The project’s use of Dunami, a surveillance software used by the FBI and the Department of Defense, also allowed analysts to figure out students’ “human networks based on social media activity,” which raises concerns about students’ rights to privacy. Especially troubling is the possibility students identified by this program may be included in Chicago’s gang database, which disproportionately affects overpoliced Black and Brown communities. Still, issues regarding student privacy and the opacity of the program—students and parents were often unaware that their schools were even participating in the program—came as no surprise considering CPS’ recent tech-related controversies. Last June, CPS accidentally sent out a mass email that had attached a huge spreadsheet of students’ private data; the year before, another errant spreadsheet exposed students’ medical conditions and birthdays.

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