It may have been “Easy As Pi” for the New York Post to obtain answers for a statewide chemistry exam. But should the newspaper have published them?
By Lou Chapman
Lou Chapman is a staff writer for The New York Observer.
Author bio information is from the time of article submission and may not be current.
FineLine: The Newsletter On Journalism Ethics, vol. 1, no. 4 (July 1989), p. 3.
This case was produced for FineLine, a publication of Billy Goat Strut Publishing, 600 East Main Street, Louisville, Kentucky 40202. Reprinted with the permission of Billy Goat Strut Publishing. This case may be reproduced for classroom and research purposes. Publication of this case in electronic or printed form requires written permission from the publisher and Indiana University. An exception is granted for use in readers designed for specific academic courses.
On June 20, an estimated 80,000 New York high school students were denied the chance to take their chemistry achievement tests because the New York Post had reprinted the test’s answers on its front page that morning.
“Easy as Pi,” read the headline, while a story inside the tabloid quoted several unidentified students, in a few parts of New York City, as saying how easy it was to obtain copies of various tests and answer sheets.
It may not be the Pentagon Papers, but reaction to the Post’s actions came quickly and adamantly from observers both inside journalism and without. They did not, however, provide a consensus.
“Publishing the answers was the exclamation mark on a declarative sentence,” said James S. Toedtman, managing editor of New York Newsday, another of the city’s three daily tabloids.”The fact of the availability of these things was known to everybody.”
But on the editorial page, New York Newsday opined: “We can’t think of one sound journalistic reason” for doing what the Post did.
But the staid New York Times, which might be considered the journalistic antithesis of the screaming, gaudy Post – and which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1972 for publishing what became known as the Pentagon Papers – defended the Post.
In an editorial, the Times first lambasted the state’s education commissioner for blaming the Post for what was obviously a major problem within his department, then said that “what really happened . . . is a mischievous newspaper did its job; it exposed a cheating scandal.”
Arthur Miller, the Harvard Law School professor and moderator of a public television series called “Ethics and Society,” voiced a response similar to one of many New Yorkers. “When I first heard about it, my immediate reaction was, there goes the Post again,” Miller said. “But then I started to think of the possibility that it might take something really quite dramatic, almost a form of journalistic shock therapy to get the attention of the people who could do something about this.”
The tests, called Regents exams, are offered in June, January and August. They can account for 25 percent of a student’s grade in a course. The tests were in their final day of a four-day cycle when the Post published part of the chemistry exam’s answer key, giving 56 answers to the 116- question test. As a result of canceling the chemistry tests, most of the state’s private and public high schools will rely on a student’s grades throughout the school year for a final average.
The day before, the state’s attorney general and state education officials said tests had been stolen and that the attorney general was investigating.
Rumors about the problem had been floating for days. Still, education officials said they would continue administering the tests.
The state education department felt the problem of stolen and copied tests was a local one that could be, one spokesman said, “contained.”
Jerry Nachman, named editor of the Post only three weeks earlier, disagreed. “If you read between (the attorney general’s) lines, he was saying there was something big out there,” Nachman said. “We reacted to that ephemera.”
Among New York City’s four major daily newspapers, only the Post tried to obtain copies of the tests after the attorney general’s press conference.
A Post reporter was able to obtain copies of some tests and the chemistry answer sheet within 15 minutes, and without paying for them, Nachman said.
The attorney general’s office has said the Post broke no laws by publishing the copied answer sheet. Education officials, however, are studying whether the Post profited illegally from students who paid 40 cents a copy for the Post to specifically get the reprinted answer sheet.
Also, questions were raised about whether the stark reproduction of the answer sheet on the front page supported claims made by the Post that the testing system already had been “contaminated” statewide.
Everette Dennis, director of the Gannett Center for Media Studies at Columbia University, said he was “astounded by the Post’s extraordinary need for specificity when it came to the answers, to publish them like that,” while at the same time “be very vague on the extent of the problem” and provide “only veiled accusations” and “hearsay evidence” about the source of the documents.
Nacham rebutted: “The only serious people who believed this was confined (to the city) were the Regents and New York City newspapers who are gagging at the notion that the New York Post may have finally done something right.