Student Press Ad Ethics: The “Sac State Crime” Case

WARNING! The blood-red bolded word is featured prominently in all caps atop a full-page advertisement run in a recent issue of The State Hornet at California State University, Sacramento.

A creepy faceless figure stands beneath the warning label, holding a flashlight and an open alcohol container.  Two stats appear nearby: “8 Sexual Assaults. 1 Murder.” The ad’s nut graf: “Sac State Crime is Out of Control.”

Or is it? As The Sacramento Bee reports, the advertisement is part of a larger campaign orchestrated by the CSU police officers union “to portray Sacramento State as a campus where crime is rampant, protection is scarce and officers have no confidence in their chief.”  The union– or at least its hard-charging president– wants more officers hired specifically to patrol Sac State (instead of serving at the managerial level).

The controversy, according to the Bee: 1) If not downright innacurate, the numbers the union is touting in the ad are definitely misleading.  2) The ad’s “out of control” tagline stemming from those numbers is striking even some CSU police union members as a scare tactic that “doesn’t reflect reality.”

For example, the murder referred to in the ad was between two roommates, something a union member confirms “[a] hundred officers could not have prevented.”  Overall, stats reveal Sac State crime is not out of control. Instead, criminal activity on campus is either in line or lower than crime rates at comparable schools across the country.

The related student press questions: What is the best way to handle a controversial ad, in this case one that is seemingly blurring the truth and ratcheting up the fear factor?  As the medium through which it was published, is the State Hornet in any way to blame for the ad’s propaganda?  Or should the paper be championed for allowing this particular perspective to be read alongside those of everyone else?  Should staffers have been responsible for more closely vetting the numbers prior to publication or at least questioning the sensational tagline?  Or does an ad like this deserve a spot to spout its viewpoint, untouched?

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