COLUMN: What has this world come to?

BY JORDAN BARTH
Senior Editor

A young woman with long brown hair and blue eyes, wearing khaki bottoms and a “blue jean” colored dress shirt under a dark blue, cashmere-like sweater initialed “MC,” sits anxiously in the courtroom as the lawyers throw rhetorical barbs at each other for the role their client played regarding the contentious matter being heard by the court. Meanwhile, the clicks from photographers’ cameras can be heard around the room, becoming overwhelming for some; flashbulbs are going off in a quick cadence-like fashion in order to get the best shot possible. Reporters are furiously tweeting developments from inside the courtroom and writing notes for their story to meet their upcoming deadlines. Above all else, eyes are locked on the young woman, observing every little twitch, change in body language, or word that comes out of her mouth as she listens intently to the court proceedings.

The young woman is Rachel Canning, an 18-year-old honors student who is a cheerleader and lacrosse player at Morris Catholic High School. The “made-for-reality-TV” lawsuit has congregated respected media outlets in our own backyard since late February when the Daily Record first broke this provocative story. The scintillating and sensationalized details of life inside the Canning home have been commented on by thousands.

Before returning home March 18 and dropping her lawsuit a few days later, Rachel Canning held a 3.5 GPA, worked at TGI Friday’s and lived in Rockaway Township with the family of her best friend, Jaime Inglesino, according to The Star-Ledger. Morris Catholic is not immune from responsibility in Canning’s lawsuit; it was the institution that intervened on her behalf. They allowed Canning to continue her studies through her expected June graduation despite no tuition having been paid for the semester, according to NJ.com. School administrators reached out to many local families, looking for a place for Canning to stay while her troubles at home were being worked out. Her stay was only meant to last days, or at the most, weeks — not more than four months.

A student’s senior year of high school is supposed to be filled with celebration and reflection on their time in K-12 education and the world they are entering. Senior prom, graduation parties, homecoming events, and awards banquets are part of the festivities, that take place. Even going down to the beach or participating in other after-prom festivities where drinking and sex takes place after a long night of dancing and having fun is common among students today. Unfortunately, it is likely that when Canning looks back on her time at Morris Catholic years from now, she will remember court appearances, being viciously attacked in the media and putting herself before a court far more divisive: the court of public opinion.

The enormous financial burden that college puts on a family is predominantly discussed in court documents by both parties. Many would argue that it has become “out of reach” for those in the middle class. Canning is extremely fortunate to even have an opportunity to obtain a college degree and live in a wealthy county.

Has college become a right? If so, how much university schooling will be required under this right? Do our parents have the right to refuse us funding when it comes to higher education? If the answer to that question is “yes,” then has higher education become so expensive that we feel the need to utilize legal means when there is a disagreement over funding? Will the affordability of a university education be in reach for middle-class families? These are questions that I cannot answer alone; we, as a society, need to answer them.

Many parents will testify how fortunate they are to have given birth to their son or daughter; the birth of a child is a precious moment for many parents. In attesting to this, Judge Peter Boggart sounded eerily like a father in illustrating the bifurcated role that love and affection should play in any familial relationship during the Cannings’ widely publicized March 4 hearing in Morristown. For parents to witness their child take legal action against them, considering the role they had in bringing the child into this world, is indescribable. Our judiciary is not set up to settle matters similar to what we saw play out over the last month and a half, nor should it ever be equipped to serve as a referee in instances like these. 

No parent is perfect at raising their son or daughter, nor will they ever be.

As teenagers and young adults, we make mistakes. We may miss curfew, lose our virginity, go to a party and get drunk or partake in a whole host of other risky behaviors. We can remember a time when we did something “stupid.” Teenagers are notorious for this, and most parents understand that. I am not condoning any of these behaviors. That being said, there are usually consequences as a result. Hopefully, we learn from our mistakes and ensure that they are not made again; relationships are repaired, and those affected by the person’s actions move on. It is chalked up as a learning experience. But how does one go about repairing a relationship like this? Where do you start? Can this be categorized as a “learning experience” for Rachel Canning?

The private lives of both families have come out in court documents and become sensationalist tabloid fodder for the entire world to enjoy. The Cannings could have never expected the amount of media attention that continues to prey on their family. Whether the coverage was justified or not is not up for discussion. Any sense of privacy that all of us take for granted has been completely stripped away. It is clear that the intimate moments that we enjoy with our families and hold dear will no longer be for them. Even after reading court documents and listening to many commentators, no member of the public truly knows the familial dynamic within the Canning and the Inglesino families. The media portrays this conflict as black or white, picking one side or the other. That is far from the truth. 

Since when did it become acceptable to pry into a family’s life as their own blood is suing them? 

The media is supposed to, with emphasis on supposed to, inform the public. While some may disagree, they play an important, but sometimes overlooked role in protecting the interests of those without the means to have their voices heard. They are there to fight for the voiceless, champion those who are not getting the credit they deserve, but most of all they serve as a “moral compass” for our society.

The media has a right to report this human interest story. A line must be drawn though between reporting and sensationalizing. Obtaining from court documents details from life at the Canning house is one thing, publishing the same documents online is where I draw the “line.” Where is the compassion and respect for the parties involved? Granted, some court records are open to the public through record requests, but by putting them online, redacting the ages of minors and personal email addresses, the health and well-being of the parties involved are being put in serious jeopardy. As journalists, how does having reporters and camera crews camped outside the Cannings’ Lincoln Park home inform the public?

A reporter’s stroke of the pen has a significant impact in the way we think, especially in our busy lives where we only catch a blip of something on CNN, NBC, CBS or FOX morning shows. As a member of the educated public and media, I have been entrusted with the enormous responsibility to influence the way people think. With great power comes great responsibility. As a good friend of mine succinctly put it, “Language affects attitudes. Attitudes impact actions.”

At what point did we, as a society, deem it acceptable to call her a “Privileged white chick, expecting everything in life to be easy.” Comments similar to this one were posted in response to online articles about her for the world to see.

As a society, we are supposed to laud and protect those who come forward with claims of abuse or discrimination, not beat down and chastise. Have we forgotten that real human beings are being affected here? What about both families having access to the hateful and derogatory comments posted on blogs, stories from news outlets and social media. You are never anonymous on the Internet. Every comment, like, post, tweet or other form of virtual expression can be tracked. 

Canning is only 18. There is an innocence that is associated with adolescence that she is losing far beyond her years by being subject to this criticism. While expressing one’s opinion is justified, hurling obscenities is not.

I am by no means condoning the actions that Canning took leading up to the suit or after.

It is important to keep in mind that she is still young and going through all of the growing pains of getting older like we all did. The only difference is now she has an inerasable history of hatred directed toward her on display for all to see. Stories that pop up on Google or Bing when “Canning” is searched will always show her involvement. Unfortunately, because of this, choices dealing with colleges and the job market will be severely hindered.

So much for believing in second chances.

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