Avoiding misrepresentation: Why columnists must write as clearly as ever

Opinion by Pepito Escarce
Oct. 1, 2014, 8:38 p.m.

In light of increased public awareness surrounding sexual assault, Bloomberg published an article about hook-up culture and interviewed former Daily columnist Chris Herries who wrote a column about victim blaming.

They paraphrased and quoted him as follows: “While everyone condemns sexual assault, there seems to be an assumption among female students that they shouldn’t have to protect themselves by avoiding drunkenness and other risky behaviors, he said. ‘Do I deserve to have my bike stolen if I leave it unlocked on the quad?’”

An online outrage ensued condemning this analogy. The loudest voices were heard from two online newspapers with feminist foci, Jezebel and Identities.Mic, berating Herries for this comparison. At first glance, it seems that they have a point. However, there was a subsequent backlash against Bloomberg for grossly misrepresenting Herries’s point and a backlash against the response sites for using one out-of-context quote to incite outrage.

Herries wrote an eloquent response to the criticism from Jezebel and Identities.Mic, among others, that should exonerate him from any apparent misogyny or other heinous worldview that a reader might find in the Bloomberg piece.

Though unfortunate, that Herries was subject to these attacks should not surprise us. In the 21st century, speed and outrage, not fact, rule journalism.

For instance, according to his response article, the Bloomberg writers originally contacted him because of the columns he had written in the past.  Unfortunately, they did not even hint at the crux of his argument in their piece but instead focused on the seemingly egregious bike-locking analogy.

“Journalists” then distributed this quote to manipulate the outrage of the public, which is a simple tactic in this case given the grave sensitivity people appropriately feel about the issue in question. And often, when even broaching such a sensitive topic, emotional arguments will impede logical discourse, as Herries was attempting.

Nevertheless, amid this fast-paced, easily distorted, state of news and commentary distribution in the modern world, we can find a silver lining.

All writers — novelists, poets, and even columnists — have one unifying fundamental purpose: to share thoughts and experiences they have with their readers in as lucid a way as possible. Especially for columnists, a writer’s goal is for the reader’s understanding of his or her piece to come as close as possible to what the writer is actually thinking.

Given how easily one can be misrepresented through a quote or a small passage, it is more than ever in a writer’s interest to present his or her point as clearly as possible.

After all, it does not seem that the Bloomberg writers read Herries’s articles, interviewed him, and then went out of their way to manipulate his views in as negative a fashion as possible. Rather, it seems that their article was a viable — albeit poor — interpretation of Herries’s words. The fact that they revised their original article and republished is indicative of a poor interpretation, not malicious intent.

Nevertheless, Herries’s original article should have done better. The purpose of the article is to discuss situations both in which victim-blaming is accepted and in which it is not. To convey this point, the use of the sexual assault example juxtaposed with the bike-locking example was, if not logically incorrect, exceedingly lazy. The aversion a reader might experience when reading this implied analogy distracts from his argument.

Herries writes the following two sentences in succession: “Moreover, victim-blaming in sexual assault attempts to limit a person’s fundamental freedoms to do things like dress how they please. At the same time, I should have the freedom to park my bike without a lock.”

Is this a comparison or not? Read it again.

These two sentences do not technically compare a seductive dress style to leaving one’s bike unlocked. They sure feel like one, though, after a quick read. And that is how people read columns. Readers do not dissect columns like literature. These days, readers give them a quick once-over.

The diminished thoroughness of the average modern reader and the celerity with which a single quote or soundbite can spread and incite outrage makes it more pertinent than ever that opinion writers elucidate their points as clearly as possible.

I have tried to do so. Knock on wood now that one of these sentences does not incite a viral mob.

Contact Pepito Escarce at pescarce ‘at’ stanford.edu

Pepito Escarce is a senior. If you are interested in learning any other things about him, his advertised opinions, or even his unadvertised opinions, please shoot him an e-mail at [email protected].

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