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State News editor responds to letter, reaction

March 31, 2015

I usually refrain from publishing my opinions in The State News. I’m a news editor, and it’s pretty far from the purpose of my job. But I wanted to use this opportunity to respond to the anonymous letter published in Tuesday's edition of the paper, and to some of the reactions it’s received.

As the editor who coordinated coverage of this past weekend's assemblies, I’m directly responsible for ensuring news reporters don’t refer to the events in Cedar Village as riots.

It’s a call we’ve made from the beginning of the events, and one I’ll continue to make, provided things don’t escalate. But the reasons have nothing to do with race or politics.

It boils down to something much more boring than that, I’m afraid — the law.

Under Michigan criminal law, specifically the Riots and Related Crimes Act of 1968, riots have a clear definition. They must involve five or more people acting together to “wrongfully engage in violent conduct and thereby intentionally or recklessly cause or create a serious risk of causing public terror or alarm.”

To insinuate that the weekend's assemblies contained violent conduct — by referring to them as riots — would be inaccurate, based upon what I and other reporters on the ground have seen.

If that changes, so will the terms our reporters use to address it.

We should also consider the comparison the author of the letter made to Ferguson, Missouri. From August to December 2014, 25 businesses were completely destroyed by intentionally-set fires in and around Ferguson, costing about $4.5 million in damages, according to the St. Louis Business Journal.

All motives or justifications aside, one situation involved the destruction of private property on a large scale. The other involved primarily leading chants, setting fire to newspapers and clothing in the street and throwing an inexplicable number of bagels. The discrepancy is clear.

The terminology we’ve used doesn’t represent a commentary or valuation of the events in either scenario. It’s simply employing journalism to represent the situation in an accurate way.

The writer of the letter does make an important point that in December 2013, we did initially characterize the revelry in Cedar Village as a riot.

I was one of the reporters on the ground that did just that, and can own up to the mistake. The editors at the time did later make the decision to amend the coverage to not employ the word riot. However, I can guarantee that The State News, as an organization, does not cave to pressure from any individual or authority when it comes to the content of our reporting. They reassessed the events of that night, decided that our previous coverage represented a mischaracterization of what occurred, and made the change.

Regardless of societal perceptions of theses situations, a riot is a legal concept with legal repercussions. It’s a felony. We simply can’t purport students have committed certain crimes when the charges they’re facing don’t reflect it.

It’s also important to address students who opposed the publication of this letter. I can’t speak for the opinion editor or the editorial board, but I can clarify some facts.

When we allow a letter to go to print, it doesn’t indicate an endorsement of that opinion by The State News, and it doesn’t act as an acknowledgement of the argument’s merit.

It does mean, however, that to some extent the points being made warrant at least a modicum of attention, if not dialogue.

It’s crucially important to our mission here that we, as MSU’s newspaper, are accountable to you, the students. When we receive such pointed criticism about our reporting, I believe it’s vital to the health of our organization that we acknowledge it in some respect.

Make no mistake, the history of rioting in the U.S. is one deeply infused with racial connotations. Regardless of the validity of the argument, it raises questions about our coverage that we or the community may not have considered.

That, for me, is enough to warrant a read.

Simon Schuster is the breaking news editor for The State News. He can be reached via email at sschuster@statenews.com

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