Do Context, Intent, and Proportion Matter in Journalism?

Dan Levin’s article “A Racial Slur, a Viral Video, and a Reckoning” seems balanced and well presented but has a profound skew. It presents as normal the situation in which a young woman, Mimi Groves, is expelled from her college cheerleading team, and soon afterward withdraws from the college under pressure, because of a three-second Snapchat video containing the n-word that she sent a friend at age fifteen. According to the article’s framing of the story, Groves has been taught a necessary life lesson. Who was the teacher, in this case? A classmate who shared the video to make a point, and others who reacted in fury. The article treats the outcome as sad but normal (and possibly beneficial, in terms of the lessons learned). In this regard it lacks attention to context, intent, and proportion.

How did this all happen? Snapchat posts are not supposed to stay around long; that’s part of the platform’s point. This one got shared, though; a couple of years later, made its way to her classmate Jimmy Galligan, who saved it for an occasion when he could “get her where she would understand the severity of that word.” After she was admitted to her dream college, the University of Tennessee, and as the country throbbed with protests over the murder of George Floyd, Galligan shared the video online, where it was met with rage. At the university, there were demands to have her admission rescinded; some had even threatened violence. The team officially removed her. An admissions officer urged her to withdraw, and she finally did.

Levin’s article carefully and importantly explains why racial slurs are particularly painful and damaging at Heritage High School in Leesburg, Va., which Groves and Galligan attended. Leesburg was the site of a battle early in the Civil War, and slave auctions used to take place on the courthouse grounds. Now a wealthy suburb, it retains racist attitudes and habits. Many students of color have spoken of feeling unwelcome at its schools. According to a report, the use of racial slurs there, and of other racially demeaning language and practices, has fostered “a growing sense of despair.”

In detailing all of this, Levin shows great attention to context. He gives some context to the video as well, explaining that it was meant for one of Groves’s friends; that she made it when she was fifteen, after receiving her learner’s permit; that she was imitating rap songs; that she felt sorry about it and apologized to a classmate who saw it; and that she later spoke up in support of Black Lives Matter. But he does not acknowledge that this context differs distinctly from that of the other instances of racial slurs mentioned. First, it does not seem that she made the video at school. Second, it was for a friend. Third, she was celebrating an achievement. It was a happy moment in which she made a serious mistake. Levin affirms, through his discussion of the town’s history, that it matters not only which words we use, but how they are received, and how history affects their reception. But he does not apply this same principle to the discussion of Groves herself.

Now, let us look at intent. Levin treats Galligan’s intent as honorable. By giving him the last words in the article, he allows Galligan to emphasize that he was teaching a lesson. But somehow the article does not acknowledge that the video’s intent was likely benign, however misguided or impulsive. It quotes Groves saying that she was young and did not understand the import of the word, and that she was disgusted by her own action now. But how many young people of all races have used the word in what they thought was a harmless way, mimicking rap and slang? While the slangish, informal use of the word is still hurtful to many (particularly because of the casualness involved), it does not have the same intent as the cruel uses. And if intent matters in this article–as it clearly does–then it should matter across the board.

In addition, only recently has the slangy use been treated as a punishable crime. Nearly fourteen years ago, in 2007, there was a Daily Show sketch in which John Oliver and Larry Wilmore lampooned a proposed ban of the word. In my view, they went too far in their humiliation of the New York City councilman who had proposed the ban. But clearly the Daily Show found the idea of banning the word ridiculous, yet played, in the sketch, with the assumption that black people could say it and white people could not. What does this have to do with Mimi Groves’s case? The word was in the air, in music, informal conversation, comedy. People knew it was wrong to say, especially if you were white–but it was also part of the language of the street, hip-hop, and youth. Young people might say it, and often did, with no desire to harm.

Now we come to the principle of proportion, which Levin’s article all but dismisses. He quotes Groves’s mother as saying that her twelve years of college preparation were “vaporized.” The reader immediately senses the hyperbole here. No, we think to ourselves, her hard work has not been “vaporized”; she had a setback, but she’ll find her way. This sets us up to perceive Galligan’s words as the true message of the article.

For his role, Mr. Galligan said he had no regrets. “If I never posted that video, nothing would have ever happened,” he said. And because the internet never forgets, the clip will always be available to watch.

“I’m going to remind myself, you started something,” he said with satisfaction. “You taught someone a lesson.”

But stop a minute here. Is it right to take a classmate’s video–which was not meant for the public, and, from all appearances, not meant to hurt anyone–and hold onto it, save it for an opportune moment, and then post it precisely when you know it will hurt her? Is this a way to treat anyone? Yet the ultimate damage was not all Galligan’s doing. The article leaves many questions unasked. Who sent him the video in the first place? Who helped it go viral later? Who demanded that Groves’s admission be rescinded? Who threatened violence? And why did any of them think this was in order?

Some might respond: You think this is bad? Do you have any idea what black people have been subjected to for centuries and still endure day after day? Do you realize that black people have been killed for saying things that white people didn’t like, or for doing nothing at all besides being black? What’s a white girl’s change of college plans next to this?

That is true. The rage is real and justified. But from what I can glean, Mimi Groves did not deserve this rage. There have to be distinctions–because if there are not, if context, intent, and proportion don’t matter, then it’s a free-for-all war, where anyone’s life can be ruined at the drop of a syllable. Journalism exists, in part, to help us maintain perspective and sanity, by reporting clearly on the conflicts in our midst.

Levin’s article–like many New York Times articles recently–combines report, investigation, analysis, and (implicitly) opinion. That in itself poses no problem; there is room in journalism for analyses, “think-pieces,” and passionate investigative writing. But in its application of its own principles, it falls short–and in doing so, it normalizes a disproportionate punishment of a teenage girl.

Long ago I gave a fifth-grade student a disproportionate punishment. She had vanished at the start of a school performance in which she had the lead role. We were waiting and waiting, and she was nowhere to be found. As it turned out, she had gone off to help a student who wasn’t feeling well, and had not told anyone. After consultation with my colleagues, I gave the role to the understudy, to whom I also awarded the drama prize at the end of the year. I talked at length with the student who had lost the honor, but would not change my mind.

Over time I realized that my decision was flat-out wrong. Giving the role to the understudy–that was understandable in the moment. But the rest had no justification. I should have given the first girl the prize. If I had thought clearly about the proportions involved, I would have made a different decision. Overpunishment is one of the most awful mistakes a teacher can make. You carry it forever; you hope that the other person is doing well in life, but you know that you caused some pain along the way.

I have been on the other end too–for instance, being cut off permanently by someone on account of what seemed to me a misunderstanding. You can go for years asking yourself why, why, why? It takes a long time to realize that the action may have been disproportionate; that whatever its reasons, it was not entirely deserved; that reasons and deserts are two different things.

We now live in an era where crowd zeal stands in for discernment and justice. Where will the clarity come from? What role will journalists play?