About 16 years ago, the editor of The Northeastern student newspaper at Northeastern State University published a photo of a nude man on the cover. It wasn’t a news photo, and it wasn’t relevant to any campus event. It was, as the editor put it, “a feast for the eye and a delicacy for the brain.”
Unfortunately for the editor, the issue arrived during the school’s journalism recruitment convention, Media Day.
To be fair, the male model was not fully exposed, just carefully positioned. But in conservative Oklahoma, the editor’s “Change” edition promised disaster.
He disappeared from the paper within two weeks and was virtually blacklisted from any journalism job in Oklahoma, said Dana Eversole, who was an adjunct professor for the university in 1990.
Eversole took over as adviser soon after.
Student publications can do a lot of impartial, accurate and dirt-digging investigation, she said, but an editor can’t use his or her role to fulfill an agenda, especially if that agenda is to shock the public.
Publishing an explicit photo or embarrassing story seems to be de rigueur for student publications. After all, college is about experimentation and crazy stunts. But adding a sense of morality and responsibility to the editorial mix will help keep a newspaper out of trouble, or at least out of the headlines.
Corrective lenses for fuzzy hindsight
A recent example comes from Murray State University. In May, a controversial cartoonist wrote a six-panel cartoon portraying the outgoing university president as Hitler, an incestuous redneck and the devil. Within an hour of the paper’s distribution, The News Managing Editor Elizabeth Cawein was called into the dean’s office, along with the opinion editor and chief editor.
“I was prepared to go down in a blaze of gunfire,” said Cawein, who is now editor-in-chief. “I was certainly feeling ready to defend my First Amendment rights, and to defend the reasoning behind the publication of the cartoon.”
She defended the cartoon despite angry faculty, the threat of libel suits and two of the five editors wanting to publicly apologize. No one got fired and no one got sued, and the paper refused to apologize. But Cawein said she learned social responsibility — essentially, the choice to not publish.
‘Why stop now?’
Alicia Agent, former editor of The Statesman, said she had no choice in investigating an important story about the well-liked president of Eastern Oklahoma State College. Her paper linked President William Campion to an out-of-state course credit scam.
Agent had many friends at the small school who looked up to “Uncle Bill.”
“I had already ruined a few of my close friendships for this story,” she said. “Why stop now?”
Agent, the staff and the adviser had little support during the investigation. She lost friends and faced intimidation from some faculty.
“It was uncomfortable for us all, but we couldn’t let them intimidate us,” Agent said.
Her loss was not in vain; the State Regents investigated, the president resigned, a Florida man who organized the scam agreed to prison time, and thousands of faked credit hours from five institutions across the country were revoked.
Agent later garnered recognition for the effort. Oklahoma’s SPJ pro chapter honored her with a First Amendment Award for protecting anonymous sources.
Truth is a premium
Texas Student Media, the umbrella for five media properties at the University of Texas, will consider purchasing libel insurance during the next round of university contract negotiations, Director Kathy Lawrence said.
And with a budget of about $2.3 million covering that much student-produced content, it’s virtually necessary. However, not all newspapers can afford the prim extras of lawyers on retainer, so smaller papers must rely on good reporting and responsibility.
Followers of the Golden Rule know that acting spiteful or malicious, even in ignorance, can lead to trouble. Being a journalist is the same. Know your sources, know your readers, and know your boundaries because otherwise, you just might have to explain away a naked man.