UNIVERSITY RESPONDS TO STUDENT DEMANDS POST-BLARNEY BLOWOUT

On March 8th, seas of shamrock-studded students flooded Amherst streets in honor of the annual Blarney Blowout. As the party of 4,000 grew rowdy, riot police moved in, complimenting disorderly partygoers’ green attire with orange pepper spray. Three days later, students donned their green once again, this time flooding the UMass campus with picket signs against police tactics used at the “blowout.”

After videos of police pepper spraying students in the face and shooting rubber bullets into crowds made rounds through social media, student leaders organized a protest against the police’s actions.

Tyler O’Day, a freshman protester who did not attend Blarney said in an interview, “From what I’ve seen from the videos online and just from personal students, from stories we heard… it just seemed like no matter what someone’s motive was, trying to get away or if they were being belligerent, there was still an excessive of force used at the blowout.”

Chancellor Subbaswamy was out of town during the protest, but Associate Chancellor Susan Pearson and Senior Associate Dean of Students David Vaillancourt listened to the protesters’ demands on his behalf. At the end of the march, student Jenna Grady listed three demands, asking for “a formal apology from the Amherst Police Department” for their actions, “a formal investigation of the events” at Blarney Blowout, and a public meeting with Subbaswamy and Vice Chancellor for University Relations John Kennedy.

Pearson said that the administration “…will work with the town, and if there are credible allegations of excessive force by the police, we will look into them.” She reminded the students that UMass has no jurisdiction over Amherst, but she would “expect there to be an investigation into what happened and then obviously if appropriate, we would discuss with the police department the appropriate response.”

Students were happy to receive an email from Subbaswamy on March 13th, announcing the launch of an investigation of “the town’s preparedness and response to crowd-related disturbances.” After consulting with Amherst officials and UMass President Robert Caret, UMass decided to use former Boston Police Commissioner Edward Davis. The press release from UMass News and Media Relations highlighted Davis’s leadership in last April’s Boston bombings investigation and extensive law enforcement background.

Associate Director of News and Media Relations, Daniel Fitzgibbons said, “After the event, it became pretty apparent that there were a lot of questions on the handling of the event.”

The university is looking to Davis for “lasting and concrete recommendations” to better deal with events of this nature and prepare for the future. The investigation won’t necessarily focus on Blarney’s police brutality, but how to better handle large events as the university continues to grow in population. Davis will be working with a four-member team, including Mark Delaney, former head of the Massachusetts State Police. Davis will present the final report to Subbaswamy and copies will be sent to President Caret and Chairman Thomas.

The investigation is expected to cost the university up to $160,000. “Obviously, we think it’s worth it,” Fitzgibbons said.

The second student demand, a public forum to discuss the students’ frustrations with “Blarney” and subsequent events, is scheduled with Subbaswamy and John Kennedy for March 27th.

 

Lessons from Journalism Next as learned through Blarney Blowout

Nothing brings multimedia journalism to your attention like a nationwide story that tarnishes the reputation of your school. In the days following UMass’ now infamous ‘Blarney Blowout’, dozens of media outlets as far as Los Angeles and Dublin published stories about the event, all with varying amounts of accuracy. As new information was released that proved that UMass students had not been nearly as unruly as first reported, very few stories were updated with the proper information, leaving much of the public to think the worst of the students.

After spending nearly a day and a half reading these various articles, I began reading chapter 10 of Mark BriggsJournalism Next: A Practical Guide to Digital Reporting and Publishing.  It discussed some of the issues present in multimedia reporting, including the way in which wrong information is published. “From a practical standpoint, correcting every error that flashes on our Web site for even five minutes is a logistical nightmare,” explained Greg Brock, a senior editor at the New York Times, in the chapter. Many times, because of this nightmare and in part because of the pace at which most news is delivered and then forgotten about, corrections either go unnoticed or unmade.

While looking at this as a journalist it made sense. After all, changing an article can be difficult, so I cannot imagine having to do it on so many platforms with a large audience. However, after seeing it on the side of someone who has been affected by misinformation, I see the devastating effects that a few words can make. While the chapter stressed that facts should be true at all times in order to maintain credibility, being on the other end of misinformation reminds you of the collateral damage in the world that can be caused by simple wording.

Multimedia was not all bad, however, in the reporting of the incident. While students complained about one-sided reporting from main media outlets, comment sections allowed students to voice their opinion on the matter, something that had not been done in any of the stories. Briggs talked a lot about the ever popular comment section in chapter 10, and most of his observations were demonstrated in the comment section of popular websites. There were anything from poorly written insults calling students names, poorly worded comments from students (not helping the school’s reputation), and well-thought-out responses from both people for and against the event.

What the comment section did was provide a dialogue that would not be available without the feature. It gave students a chance to respond to the controversy, especially those that had not taken part in the event, and otherwise felt lumped in with those that were. Did these comments actually help change anyone’s mind? I’m not sure. But while you sit behind a computer screen, a comment makes you feel like you have a voice, when you previously felt that you didn’t.