Commentary: Challenge for journalism

Gideon Grudo

Gideon Grudo, Senior Editor

Edit: On March 7, a day after this article came out, FAU OwlTV took down its entire Twitter account and started a new one: @FAU_OwlTV. Owl TV, Student Government and FAU officials refused to be interviewed about why the Twitter account went down.

OwlTV Station Manager AJ Jordat may have violated four laws in a series of four February tweets, according to a lawyer. And it seems that no one knows this because no one’s doing anything about it.

The tweets started off with a picture of a girl, framed neck-to-knees, sporting black lingerie and nothing else. They were posted on @FAUOwlTV’s Twitter. Jordat said he used the photo ”because we were promoting a new show called Sex and the University.” The “we” being FAU OwlTV, the university’s student television station. ”The tweet does imply that it’s a sexting photo because it was plugging the first episode,” Jordat said.

This first episode aired on March 5, and focused on the dangers of sexting, according to Jordat. The text of the Feb. 16 tweet: [These “Spanish girls love me like I’m on Twitter” – she didn’t get the memo

that sexting is dangerous; at least no face], then there’s a link to the photo. (See photo for the rest of the tweets).

The girl in the photo — who requested to stay anonymous — claimed that Jordat promised her no one would see the photo other than him.

“[Jordat] told me he wanted to make me a ‘Hooter Hottie of the Week.’ He said I’d have to come in and audition,” she wrote in a Feb. 18 email to Associate Dean of Students Terry Mena. “I didn’t want to, and asked if I could just send him a photo. He said I could, and promised he’d be the only one to see it.”

Jordat denies these claims, saying she was applying to Hooter Hottie of the Week, a T and A program from OwlTV in which various girls are showcased as hotties, and therefore the photo was open to re-use by the station. But she didn’t sign a release, nor was she told about these reproduction policies, nor does it say anything about them on the station’s site. It’s implied, Jordat said, so these disclosures aren’t necessary.

Yeah, that’s what he said.

Unlawful behavior

First, according to Student Press Law Center lawyer Adam Goldstein, there’s a “false light issue.” In Florida, it’s simply called libel. It’s when someone may use true facts to give a false impression. To be clear, Goldstein does not say with certainty whether something is legal or not. He will advise based on what he’s told, in this case, by me.

“This picture is held up as a warning against sexting. But this wasn’t sexting, it was somebody submitting a photograph into a contest,” he said. “It creates the impression that she engages in risky behavior like sexting.”

Was she sexting, then, or was she submitting for a contest? Jordat and his self-described second-in-command, Programming Director Ginette Javier, gave several answers to this one.

“She submitted the photo to Hooter Hottie,” Jordat said, later changing his answer and saying she submitted the photo for programming in general. “It probably was with hopes of being on Hooter Hottie.”

Later, he said he has no idea why she submitted the photo, but not before saying  “she submitted it because she wanted to be involved with one of the projects at OwlTV” and “she wanted to be a model for OwlTV — she became a model for OwlTV.” Then Jordat suddenly claimed he didn’t even know the picture was of her, something he hadn’t mentioned until our talk on March 3. And, he claimed, no one can prove it was her.

Except, of course, she can. And she did. And so did someone else that tipped me to reach out to her .

“I know who’s claiming the picture. I’m not a hundred percent sure that’s her,” he said. “That to me, resembled a stock photo.” Jordat did later admit that the sender said it was her in the photo.

The above tweets use the picture of an almost-nude photo of an anonymous girl to promote a show called Sex and the University. Its first episode is about the dangers of sexting, according to Station Manager AJ Jordat, which is why he used the tweet this way. An attorney says that may be illegal.

Ginette Javier agreed that the girl sexted Jordat, then said it was also an application for Hooter Hottie, explaining that “you can do both.”

Yeah, that’s what she said.

Second, Goldstein said, there’s something called “commercial misappropriation of image.” The tweet accuses the girl in the photo of sexting. If she didn’t, it’s a libelous tweet. If her identity couldn’t be revealed, the subject is debatable. But it was obviously revealed.

Third, there’s an intellectual property issue, according to Goldstein. When Jordat claims, like he told me, that when OwlTV holds a contest and gets submissions, “we can do whatever we want, whenever we want to do it” is simply not true, said Goldstein, unless someone signs their rights to a photo away in a release or disclosure. Until then, the picture belongs to the person who took it on her phone, in this case the girl. She owns it, said Goldstein.

“That OwlTV seems incredibly confused about the purpose of the submission doesn’t confer any greater license to them,” Goldstein said about the implied agreement between the girl and OwlTV when she submitted her photo. “The fact that OwlTV doesn’t seem to be clear on the scope of this license is itself evidence that it hasn’t got one that covers the activity.”

Finally, the tweets may have entered the realm of Title IX, or sexual harassment, according to Goldstein. It’s defined as something that “denies or limits on the basis of sex of students to participate in or receive services or opportunities.” That’s fancy talk for saying someone’s gender may be held against them.

In this case, it means that the girl is likely not to participate in any OwlTV programming in the future.

“If instead of OwlTV, the girl had submitted her photo to the track team to prove she was in shape and wanted to run track, and the coach had tweeted the photo to everyone and said, ‘look at the bad life choices this girl makes,’ would she have felt free to try out for the team in the future?” Goldstein explained.

But there’s a problem. According to both Jordat and the girl, the conversations that took place about what the photo was for and how it would be used were verbal, and therefore Jordat’s word against her word. So we can’t know for sure.

But here’s the kicker: it doesn’t matter that we don’t know.

If the girl is telling the truth and submitted the photo for Jordat’s sole viewing pleasure and consideration, then FAU OwlTV has no right to use that image to promote a show.

If Jordat is telling the truth and the picture was submitted for Hooter Hottie (or “programming,”) then it wasn’t sexting and can’t be represented as such.

“If the photo depicts sexting, the license was for personal use and they didn’t get a license to cover any public use, let alone commercial use in the promotional tweets,” Goldstein said. “If the photo depicts a contest entry, they’re falsely accusing the girl of sexting, which could make people think less of her. Either way, a media outlet should not be this confused about basic privacy and intellectual property issues.”

I’d call it a lose-lose situation. But now that the legal jargon is behind us, it’s time to find out what’s been done to try to fix this problem — which is nothing.

Bureaucracy

The girl in the photo sent the email I mentioned above on Feb. 18, a Saturday. That Monday, Associate Dean Terry Mena and Director of Student Media Michael Gaede sat down to talk to her. The conversation is protected under a privacy law called FERPA, according to Mena, and so is the resulting action.

Mena did, however, confirm that the tweet was a “promotional item that was used to market an event that was put on by FAU OwlTV.”

He continued to say that Student Affairs is in conversations with the director of student media and the station manager, but refused to provide details since this involves a personnel matter. Then he refused to say if Student Affairs has taken any action. Then he refused to say if he’s investigated the tweet or not because it’s a student issue and he didn’t want to violate a student’s privacy. Then he refused to say if he knew if the tweets violated any laws.

Yeah, that’s what he said.

Well, I got more out of the director of student media. He said that there had been “a lot of meetings.” By that he specifically meant two or three short conversations he had with Student Body President Ayden Maher.

Maher said he’d take disciplinary action, Gaede said. Maher, you see, appointed Jordat in the fall after an elected station manager had quit.

“From what I understood, it was going to be a letter of warning,” Gaede said, adding that he hadn’t had a chance to follow up on it.

According to Gaede, Mena said that this was a “director-level” issue, and advised Gaede to talk to Maher in order to resolve it. But then Gaede offered this surprising nugget of insight.

“It depends, too, on what the level of the audience was,” he said about the fact that not too many people saw the tweet. “It doesn’t mean that the issue shouldn’t be explored, but at this level we’re kind of — I really haven’t given it the attention I think it should have gotten, but there’s nine million other things going on.”

Gaede said that both the girl and Jordat are both right and wrong. Other than speaking to a lawyer friend, though, Gaede admitted he hadn’t consulted anyone else.

“If they had put her name on there, that’s serious,” he said. “I’m not sure there is a hard-cut answer here. Ethically, I think it’s questionable. Legally, I haven’t found any problem with it.”

Goldstein said that Gaede’s reasoning doesn’t cut it.

“Arguing that someone isn’t identifiable after people have identified her, found her and interviewed her is a pretty weak defense,” he said. “It sounds like the identification was confirmed by OwlTV, too, since they want to debate what kind of license she gave them.”

Gaede later wrote in an email that his role is advisory and as such he tries to stay away from censoring students. You know, because getting a station manager to remove a sexually explicit and legally questionable marketing tweet is censorship.

The student body president had little to say. He said he hadn’t written a letter yet, refused to comment on when he’d be writing one or what it’d say. Finally, he said that the tweet is “okay,” and can stay up.

OwlTV, however, did do something. After I tweeted about this photo on @FauxStdntMedia (which used to be @FAUStudentMedia) and a tweeting bout began, the station held a meeting for all staff and volunteers.

OwlTV management asked students if the tweet was okay or not and if it should be removed. According to Javier, it was a split decision. So an “executive board,” comprising Jordat, Javier and a third girl who they refused to identify, got together. The board reviewed the “pros and cons” of the tweet and ultimately decided to leave it up “in the best interest of the studio,” Javier said. She refused to say why it was in the station’s best interest.

But she said she knows that the tweet couldn’t result in “legal action” because she had spoken to a media lawyer that she refused to identify. Jordat, too, said he had done research. He said he spoke to a student at the University of South Florida’s media department, but couldn’t remember the student’s position.

Challenge for journalism

I’ve been wrestling with this for a few weeks now. I even asked Goldstein about the ethics of my participation in this whole ordeal, walking the fence between journalism and activism. He assured me, saying that in his opinion, a journalist should not report on hardships and then ignore them.

So, Jordat, here’s my challenge to you. I’ll call it a Challenge for Journalism:

Remove the tweet immediately. Then, right after that, resign your post immediately.

You have no more commitment to ethical practices than does a rock. I know you’re signed up to attend a journalism convention in New York City soon, and your stay will cost FAU students hundreds of dollars. You shouldn’t go. You shouldn’t waste student fees.

The director of student media should quickly assemble a selection committee to recommend a new station manager as your replacement. There should be considerable emphasis on journalistic and ethical practice during the interviews.

While the committee is being assembled, OwlTV should hold a seminar on journalistic practice in television and media with particular attention to the use of submitted images and content. I suggest you bring in professionals to lead the seminar.

Most importantly, explain to your staff where you have erred, both in the February tweets, and in your response to criticism about them.

It is them, not me, who should be making this challenge in the first place. For the sake of OwlTV, for the sake of the volunteers there, for the sake of FAU’s student media, and indeed for the sake of FAU.

There’s little worse than a thin-skinned journalist. If you had put the photo up, gotten flak and taken it down with an apology, this would all just be a funny tweet. But your continued refusal to do anything about it, your obvious lack of personal accountability, your lack of hard research — it’s all astoundingly irresponsible.

A person who’s used this photo the way you did and reacted to the press the way you did should not be in a position of authority over students who have a desire to learn the trade.

You will lead them astray, as you’ve tragically led yourself.