Journalism Ethics 101

[Ed. Note: Though the following column asserts the Michael Brenner was involved in the fabrication of the story of Kodee Kennings, no evidence has been found that proves Brenner knew that story was false or was involved in its creation.  Former SIU student Jamie Reynolds claims that Michael Brenner was involved in the fabrication of the story, but Brenner denies that he had any prior knowledge that the story was untrue. The column also incorrectly characterizes Brenner’s actions as "perjury." Brenner has not been accused of any crime related to the fabricated story. The Vanguard regrets the errors.]


The story of war orphan Kodee Kennings was buried on the back page of the New York Times last month and treated less like news and more like some lighthearted human-interest story.


It wasn’t because the 8-year-old had lost her mother early in life that she was the topic of ridicule, and it wasn’t because her father had recently died in Iraq. It was because Kodee Kennings, whose traumatic Iraqi story had been the sole property of the Southern Illinois University student newspaper, didn’t exist.


It turns out the little girl and her yellow-ribbon misfortune were the invention of the former SIU Daily Egyptian editor-in-chief Michael Brenner, created by he and a friend two years ago when the journalism student began worrying his career needed a boost. Brenner and former SIU student Jaimie Reynolds, who posed as Kodee’s guardian, reported the moving interactions between the girl and her father from their teary goodbye throughout his tour in Iraq, going so far as to supposedly having duped actors into playing the girl and her father for photo shoots.


It’s easy to see how the Times could see Brenner’s foibled counterfeit as a humorous endnote. In an era where male prostitutes hold positions in the White House press core it’s hard to see the ridiculous fraud of a small time student publication as anything dire. But the perjury of Michael Brenner represents a much more worrisome trend. His fabrication, the result of hyper concern over his career, was a calculated decision to disregard the ethical responsibilities of his position. That a student, more than a year away from graduation, would endanger, and ultimately ruin, his career as a journalist, keeping up his ruse for two years, is a telling indication that the education he received at SIU ultimately failed him.


But it’s not just SIU that needs to recognize this failure but the institution of higher education in general. Brenner’s act, while admittedly an outrageous one, is just an example of how educational institutions, beginning well before college, are concentrating so heavily on creating a work force, on the bottom line, that they’re ignoring their responsibility to well roundedness of their students.

Granted, the average student at PSU is nearly the same age as professional plagiarists like Steven Glass or Jason Blair, thus allowing them a broader view of the world, and a better understanding of their responsibilities within society. But I find myself consistently dumbfounded by the naked ambition of my classmates. Not to imply that all college graduates should be lay-about ne’er-do-wells, with little or no ambition to do anything but read Nietzsche in the Park Blocks, but it is important to realize that as students, even at PSU, we engender a certain sense of privilege. With the opportunity to progress in society comes the obligation to act morally. If career growth and position is the only thing a student is conditioned to consider then how can we expect them to consider the effects of their decision?


And as younger students, products of the abysmal No Child Left Behind campaign, begin filtering into higher ed, I fear things can only digress further. After all, if an 18-year-old has spent her entire school career concentrating on test scores and accomplishment alone, and then spends a brief four years in an institution that prepares her for a single field career, then when it comes time to make effecting decisions there is no way to expect anything but self-serving results. And then we’ll end up in a world where everyone in power, from the highest government positions to the heads of corporations, is inherently corrupt without even knowing it. And where will that leave us? Ummm…