Ombudsman: Anecdotes in Context

An amusing Crimson story about psychology experiment junkies—students who repeatedly volunteer to be guinea pigs—ended on a startling note.

The March 1 front-page feature reported that Alexander Gordon ’06 had once participated in a five-day “sleep and sensory deprivation study” at Massachusetts General Hospital, in which he was “placed in a cell with dim, unchanging light.”

Gordon told the reporter: “It was very disorienting, and a little frightening, because I had to spend a lot of time alone with myself. It was an adventure. I feel like I came out a very different person.”

For volunteering for what sounds to have been a fairly traumatic experience, Gordon was paid $250.

Gordon’s story sounded suspicious when I read it—first, because the experiment seems to be akin to tamer CIA interrogation techniques and second, because he seems to have been paid too little. His payment works out to about $2 an hour, while the article reports other test subjects making $10 to $25 an hour for much less strenuous experiments. Mass General is currently seeking participants for several sleep studies, including one that pays $2,408 for a 13-day study—about $8 an hour.

I spoke with Gordon last week and he insists the story was accurate. He declined, however, to tell me the name of the researcher. “No, I don’t think I should,” he said, shortly before hanging up on me. He implied that he was paid less than others because he was a friend of the researcher.

He also declined to provide other details of the study, except to say, “I wouldn’t recommend it to other people.”

A hospital representative was unable to confirm this week whether the experiment occurred.

The trouble with the article is the complete credence The Crimson gave to a story that had some fairly far-fetched sounding elements. The reporter should have attempted to contact the hospital or the researcher to verify the story.

At minimum, the story should have contained some context for the experiment, perhaps a doctor discussing the potential health impacts of repeatedly being a test subject. Or, The Crimson could have discussed the review process that all experiments involving human subjects must undergo.

The reporter did none of this, nor did his editors ask him to.

The Crimson’s lighter stories sometimes appear less thorough and balanced than they should. This is by no means unique to the Crimson. Newspaper editors have a tendency to spend most of their time scrutinizing the most controversial stories. That doesn’t mean they can be careless about other stories. Editors need to ask about every story: Have we provided the relevant context for the reader? Is there a perspective missing from this story?

But for the last anecdote, the guinea pig junkie story was quite good, particularly since this happened to be the first article the reporter wrote for the Crimson.

Nor should this criticism be reason for The Crimson to shy from putting similar features on the front page—indeed, I’d like to see more of them. A newspaper must enlighten and entertain. But when The Crimson attempts these stories, its reporters and editors must do more than provide the basics. Without appropriate context, The Crimson may find itself in the position of posing more questions than it answers.

A similarly puzzling passage appeared in a Feb. 20 front page article about an Undergraduate Council meeting.

After the first two paragraphs described various decisions of the council, the story continued: “With a full docket, the meeting proceeded despite the initial absence of UC Vice President Matthew L. Sundquist ’09, who e-mailed the UC open list a few minutes before the meeting convened to report that he had been ‘locked into a very small hallway’ in the Hilles basement.

“‘I can’t get out—the door is locked and I’m stuck,’ Sundquist’s e-mail read. ‘My phone also just died. I hope to see you all in a few minutes. It’s also kind of cold and my laptop is dying as well.’

“By the time Sundquist arrived, the committee had already unanimously approved legislation providing for spring semester freshman party grants.”

And that was the last we heard of Sundquist and the tiny hallway.

To my mind, the story was as equally puzzling—and indeed funny—as the guinea pig story. Here again, The Crimson seems to have found an interesting story but has left the reader scratching her head. After a little additional reporting, I can provide some of that context.

The council was meeting in an unfamiliar room and upon finding the door locked, Sundquist went off to find someone to unlock it. But the former Hilles Library, now the Student Organization Center at Hilles, apparently has a confusing system of stairwells and doorways, and after getting lost, Sundquist found himself in the situation described in his email. Sundquist said he was trapped for about 40 minutes before he was rescued.

The reader would have benefited from this context. Indeed, the story as a whole could have focused more on this episode than, say, how the council planned to gather ISBN codes from textbooks at the Coop. While the latter subject may have had more long-term ramifications, the story of a sophomore stuck in a hallway was certainly more riveting.

Michael Kolber is The Crimson’s ombudsman and a Harvard Law School student. He will write a monthly column, responding to reader complaints with his independent critiques of The Crimson. This is his first column. He can be reached at