I am biased.
At the end of fifth grade, I moved into my current house. Having just moved away from my closest friends, I desperately wanted someone I could talk to at the bus stop and play basketball with.
A month later while shooting hoops, I noticed a host of moving trucks parked outside the house two doors down. My eyes immediately lit up when I got a closer look. There was a basketball net and a boy who looked about my age.
All summer I observed him work on his jump shot as I practiced my Yao Ming impression on my lowered hoop. Finally, on the first day of school, I introduced myself to him.
Dharun Ravi and I have been friends ever since.
My fondest memories with him are the afternoons I spent at his house. We threw Frisbees in his yard, slayed nefarious aliens on the computer he built and played with his dog Lance.
In hindsight, it’s hard to ignore his influence on my life. He gave me my first CD, U2’s “How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb,” for my 12th birthday. He turned me on to my favorite TV show, “Big Bang Theory,” in ninth grade. He undoubtedly influenced my interest in science and technology through his tech savvy. I looked up to him.
Since then, Dharun has become one of the most notorious people in the United States. In September 2010, Dharun started his freshman year at Rutgers University, and I was a senior in high school. One day, I heard Dharun was home because his roommate Tyler had committed suicide.
That afternoon, a caravan of news trucks lined my street. Confused, I looked online to investigate. I was appalled by what I found.
News sources at the time reported that Dharun had outed Tyler by videotaping him having sex with another man and sharing the video on Twitter. According to reports, Dharun tried to videotape Tyler a second time, but Tyler found out and subsequently committed suicide because he couldn’t handle the world knowing his secret.
I could hardly contain my anger. I knew Dharun was no monster and the story the media was reporting must have been wrong.
Despite my doubts, the story quickly gained traction internationally, and to this day it is the version most people know.
Understandably, the story caused widespread outrage. Everybody from Anderson Cooper to Dr. Phil to Perez Hilton slammed him in the media and many called for Dharun to be charged with murder.
However, his March 2012 trial revealed a different story. There was never a recording of a sex scene — but instead a short video stream of Tyler kissing another man. Dharun never outed Tyler — who was already known to be gay. Furthermore, Dharun was never charged for Tyler’s death.
While what Dharun actually did is inexcusable, insensitive and wrong, he is not the monster that media outlets portrayed and the public accepted.
Journalists have a responsibility to present stories in an unbiased and neutral manner. Their goal should be to inform, not to influence public opinion. They must take care in their phrasing so they don’t make implications that are not supported by fact.
In Dharun’s case, many headlines were phrased to create a more exciting story — implying that Dharun directly caused Tyler’s suicide.
But at the same time, readers have a responsibility to inform themselves on all sides of an issue before making a judgment. Readers must remember that “allegedly” means exactly that — allegedly.
Since then, news sources have published stories acknowledging that the initial reports were exaggerated. In my limited experience, however, most people still believe the original story.
Dharun was charged with and found guilty of 15 offenses including invasion of privacy and bias intimidation — serious charges, but less severe than many demanded.
In reality, he has been guilty in society’s eyes of far more heinous crimes since the news broke in September 2010. Though in court he is innocent until proven guilty, the court of public opinion provides no such benefit. Dharun has lived in a self-imposed exile for nearly two years, hiding from the reporters who camped out on our street and a society that believes him to be homophobic, perverted and hateful.
Just as Dharun was too quick to judge his roommate by his sexual orientation, news outlets and society were too quick to judge Dharun. This double tragedy can teach us the dangers of coming to hasty and emotional conclusions.
Given the size of Penn, we meet hundreds of people who never get a chance to give a second impression. We shouldn’t let these limited interactions define somebody.
On May 21, Dharun was sentenced to 30 days in jail along with community service, counseling, probation and a fine.
Critics have accused the judge of being overly lenient. Some, like Perez Hilton, still reference a nonexistent sex tape to support their criticism of his leniency.
Whether you personally believe the sentence is too lenient or too harsh, I ask that you base your judgment only after considering the proven facts of the trial and considering all sides of the issue. And, possibly, even the accounts of a once-lonely fifth grader.
Michael Zhuang is a rising College and Wharton sophomore from Plainsboro, N.J. His email address is zhuangm@ wharton.upenn.edu.
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