College Media Story Idea: The Urban Dictionary Debate

How is your school defined, online? Urban Dictionary, the web’s self-proclaimed “cornucopia of streetwise lingo,” sports a growing number of definitions for colleges and universities.

Yes, they are anonymous.  And yes, some are just incoherent or cliche.  But many are ripe for commentary, a quick reaction story or a larger feature report.

The nastiest ones, in many ways, are the most intriguing.  They cut through the PR muck of university mission statements to reveal a number of potentially newsworthy items: a university’s actual underbelly; what everyone takes for granted as true but might possibly be false; how the school is perceived, for better or worse; the realities or trends everyone knows about or are engaged within but haven’t reflected upon in awhile.

In the current issue of The Minaret, the student newspaper I advise at the University of Tampa, staffers solicited campus reactions to a number of the school’s Urban Dictionary definitions.  A pair of commentary writers questioned the entries’ accuracy and what they mean for the school.

On the issue’s front page (screenshot of top half above), editors placed an especially venomous definition opposite a portion of the school’s mission statement.  One was of course crafted with care and the other was written most likely on a whim, but the question our layout implicitly asks: Is one any more valid or true than the other?

To spin off your own definitive story, a few leading questions: What is your school’s online identity?  If they exist, what do the nastier definitions about your school reveal about the actual truth or others’ perceptions of it?  What do students– and administrators– think of these types of anonymous school reviews? What stereotypes need to be cleared up?  How seriously do admissions officials and prospective students treat sites like Urban Dictionary?  And what can be done to fight especially vile falsehoods or attacks?

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