In late August, a despicable allegation—since proven to be false—was made against the men of Lambda Chi Alpha at the University of North Dakota. They were accused of committing a brutal assault motivated by a supposed hatred of their accuser’s sexual orientation. The allegation was so appalling, so outrageous, that merely seeing it in print could cause the stomach of any reasonable reader to turn.
Fully aware of this, the media should have approached its reporting of the allegation with great caution.
Did the public have a right to be aware of the allegation? Certainly, but the more outrageous the claim, the more skeptically it should be examined—and this is where the media failed.
Local media outlets rushed to publish stories before meaningful information could be gathered. Rather than critically analyzing the allegations, they chose to appeal to the hearts of their audience by sharing quotes from the alleged victim, members of his family, and others, quotes which were emotionally compelling but suspiciously devoid of substance. Rather than present facts in a fair and unbiased manner, the media ran unjustifiably-slanted accounts of the incident, minimizing or even excluding key information, like the fact that it was members of Lambda Chi Alpha who had reached out to police authorities for assistance at the time of the incident.
The public was presented with a narrative that was not intended to inform them, but rather purposefully designed to evoke empathy for the alleged victim. In the meantime, it was the fraternity and its members that, through no fault of their own, became victims. Painted as bigots, they were forced to watch as the name of an organization they cherished was dragged through the mud. During the year’s most critical period of recruitment, they feared retaliation from an action as simple as wearing clothing bearing their letters in public. Their personal relationships with others outside of the organization were strained. Repeatedly, members were forced to defend both their own character and that of their organization to concerned family members and campus acquaintances.
While it was undoubtedly the men of Lambda Chi Alpha who suffered the most directly and severely from this incident, they were far from the only victims. The Greek community at UND is comprised of over 1,000 students belonging to a number of organizations—currently 13 fraternities and 7 sororities, each with their own unique history, organizational values, philanthropic causes, and initiation rituals. At the national level, there are hundreds of these organizations. The vast majority of the non-Greek public sees little distinction among these organizations, so while stories about the incident were largely focused on Lambda Chi Alpha, much of the resulting judgment was passed on fraternities in general and the Greek community as a whole.
When parents of incoming freshman opened an email from UND administration and learned about the allegations, they were given another reason to be hesitant about their son or daughter joining a Greek organization. “If this is the kind of behavior that fraternities and sororities are involved in,” many parents surely mused, “is it really something that I want my child to be a part of?”
The tremendous value of Greek organizations has long been overshadowed in the eyes of many by the notorious “Animal House” stigma. Little attention is given to all of the good that our organizations do. Seldom do you read about the character development and leadership growth fostered by fraternities and sororities, nor the philanthropic contributions that they make. You don’t hear much about the organizations’ roles as homes away from home for their members, functioning as networks of support that are always ready to help a brother or sister when tragedy hits.
Rarely do you read about the Greek community truly coming together as a “community” when members or organizations are faced with great adversity—whether it is something as small as the kind words of support offered by members of other organizations to the men of Lambda Chi Alpha during this incident, or something as inspiring as the men of Sigma Chi hosting a philanthropy to support another fraternity member’s battle against cancer last week.
The way that this incident played out is reflective of a much broader social problem. As a public, we have a problematic tendency to rush to judgment on issues that evoke emotion. It happens when allegations arise related to hate crimes, sexual assault, racism, and other emotionally-charged topics.
Sometimes this happens because we can relate to the alleged victim. In other instances, we do this out of empathy for the alleged victim or a belief that the incident embodies a dire problem we believe needs to be addressed. But even when the motivation is benevolent—when we are doing it because we care— we need to evaluate whether trying these cases in the court of public opinion is doing more harm than good to the victims or to the cause.
Hate crimes, sexual assault, and racism are all legitimate problems that we need to confront as a society, but when an individual is convicted in the court of public opinion, only to be later vindicated once the facts have been gathered, we diminish the seriousness of each of these problems. We discourage legitimate victims from coming forward out of fear that they will not be taken seriously, thereby allowing their perpetrators to escape justice. We inadvertently shift the public dialogue from a meaningful conversation about how we can fix our nation’s problems to an unproductive debate about whether or not these real problems even exist. In doing so, we forego even the simplest opportunities to build consensus and inhibit our ability to move forward as a society.
We have a right to expect more from our news media. We have a right to expect that organizations operating under the auspices of informing the public will provide us with information that is accurate.
But we also have an obligation to hold these organizations accountable. We have an obligation to do more than feign outrage when an innocent individual falls victim to bad journalism. We have an obligation to critically examine the information that is presented to us and a duty to withhold judgment until the facts are gathered. If we don’t fulfill these obligations, then we forfeit our right to place all of the blame on the media when problems arise. We have ourselves to blame, too.