Friday, April 18, 2008

Controversial art project poses dilemma for media

The Yale Daily News found itself at the center of a bizarre tug of war over the truth this week when it reported Thursday that a student had artificially inseminated herself repeatedly and taken abortion drugs to induce miscarriages for an art project.

The story of senior art major Aliza Shvarts' project swept like wildfire across the Internet, showing up in news accounts and blogs. National groups on both sides of the abortion debate immediately condemned the project. Activists gathered at the school to protest.

On Friday Yale issued a statement saying the university had investigated the story and had found it all to be a hoax.

"Ms. Shvarts is engaged in performance art," said the statement by university spokesperson Helaine S. Klasky. "She stated to three senior Yale University officials today, including two deans, that she did not impregnate herself and that she did not induce any miscarriages. The entire project is an art piece, a creative fiction designed to draw attention to the ambiguity surrounding form and function of a woman’s body."

The statement went on to say that Shvarts "is an artist and has the right to express herself through performance art."

But Shvarts is standing by her project. In a convoluted guest column published in Friday's Yale Daily News, she described her process and in an interview she told the newspaper that the university's statement is "ultimately inaccurate."

The incident is even causing a stir on Wikipedia, where a report on the controversy was being "considered for deletion" and "flagged for rescue," according to the user-generated online encyclopedia's deletion policy.

Shvarts is scheduled to display the controversial senior art project, a presentation that supposedly includes video footage of the artist in her bathtub cramping and bleeding from a self-induced miscarriage, next Tuesday. She told reporters the work would also include a sculpture that incorporates her own blood from the forced miscarriages and a spoken piece describing what she had done.

Did Aliza Shvarts repeatedly impregnate herself and then abort the fetuses? Or did she stage an elaborate hoax? How can news organizations like the Yale Daily News learn the truth? How can newspapers -- student and professional -- avoid getting pulled into hoaxes?

It's a fascinating dilemma for the Yale newspaper and for student newspapers everywhere.

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