Year in Review: Most Viral Student Media of 2012, Part 1

Allegations of Ivy League hazing. Alice in Wonderland on LSD. A Biblical studies professor busted in a child predator sting. A student squirrel whisperer. A 280-pound black bear falling from a tree. And something called milking.

These buzzwords and teaser descriptions factor into a few of the many viral creations published or posted by college media over the past year. The student press was responsible for an especially high number of viral reports, columns, videos, photos, headlines, and tweets in 2012.

Some were deliberate attempts for clicks, shares, and attention. Others were scandals featuring student journalists at the center. And still others were quiet bits of content that became sudden sideshows within the Internet circus, for better and worse.

Collectively, their moments in the digital spotlight offer a fascinating foundation for a student press year in review– a glimpse at what was especially popular, controversial, funny, unexpected, and out of control.

In that spirit, here is a chronological rundown of top college media moments and content that blew up online in 2012.

NEVER, IN A MILLION YEARS

Near the start of the year, Onward State killed Joe Paterno, the night before he actually died. On a Saturday evening in late January, the online student news outlet at Penn State University reported Paterno– the school’s legendary football coach who had become increasingly ensnared within the Sandusky sex abuse scandal– had succumbed to lung cancer.

In a series of tweets and a story on its site, Onward State offered the first apparent confirmation of Paterno’s death. CBS Sports and other outlets worldwide quickly cited and linked to them. The media pick-ups were a sign of both the immense anticipation surrounding word of Paterno’s condition and Onward State’s social media prowess. (The outlet’s Facebook and Twitter followings are among the highest in college media.)

Unfortunately, the scoop was mistaken. Subsequent conflicting reports and statements from a family spokesman and one of Paterno’s sons spurred a retraction and apology. It also led to a ferocious, real-time digital drubbing from Happy Valley faithful, the general public, and the press. By night’s end, Onward State managing editor Devon Edwards had resigned.

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As Edwards wrote at the time, “I never, in a million years, would have thought that Onward State would be cited by the national media, and today, I sincerely wish it never had been. . . . To the Penn State community and to the Paterno family most of all, I could not be more sorry for the emotional anguish I am sure we caused. There are no excuses for what we did. We all make mistakes, but it’s impossible to brush off one of this magnitude.”

Paterno passed away the next morning.

PARTY AT THE END OF THE WORLD

Soon after Onward State’s faux pas, a column by a Dartmouth University student earned national attention for its extremely candid glimpse at hazing. In late January, The Dartmouth student newspaper published a personal piece by senior Andrew Lohse outlining the many degrading acts he had allegedly endured in 2010 while pledging a fraternity at the Ivy League school.

In the column, headlined “Telling the Truth,” he wrote, “I was a member of a fraternity that asked pledges, in order to become a brother, to: swim in a kiddie pool full of vomit, urine, fecal matter, semen, and rotten food products; eat omelets made of vomit; chug cups of vinegar, which in one case caused a pledge to vomit blood; drink beers poured down fellow pledges’ ass cracks; and vomit on other pledges, among other abuses. Certainly, pledges could have refused these orders. However, under extreme peer pressure and the desire to ‘be a brother,’ most acquiesced.”

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The frankness of the piece– and the misdeeds it describes occurring behind Ivy-covered walls– led to a bevy of rapid shares and shocked responses from online readers. It also triggered a ton of press coverage, including a prominent feature in Rolling Stone, and a book deal for Lohse.

The book’s working title: “Party at the End of the World.”

BUMPER STICKER ON A FERRARI

In late January and early February, a column in The Spectrum student newspaper at the University of Buffalo went massively viral due to its criticisms of women who get tattoos. Along with a rash of well-reasoned retorts, the piece prompted endless hate-filled rants and personal attacks aimed at its student writer.

In the column, Lisa Khoury, UB sophomore and Spectrum assistant news editor, argued women are beautiful without permanent body markings. She compared a tattoo on a woman to a “bumper sticker on a Ferrari” and degraded the practice among females as a sadly superficial way to score male attention.

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In her words, “An elegant woman does not vandalize the temple she has been blessed with as her body. She appreciates it. She flaunts it. She’s not happy with it? She goes to the gym. She dresses it up in lavish, fun, trendy clothes, enjoying trips to the mall with her girlfriends. She accentuates her legs with high heels. She gets her nails done. She enjoys the finer things in life, all with the body she was blessed with. But marking it up with ink? That’s just not necessary.”

In response, readers worldwide pounced, a majority condemning Khoury and her perspectives. As she wrote at one point, “I woke up today and had 938 hate mails, 646 nasty Facebook comments, and dozens of mean-spirited tweets. I’m a 19-year-old college sophomore, I help run my family’s restaurant, I’m a writer and editor at my school’s newspaper, and a woman from Australia says I’m ‘sexist.’ A professor from the University of Illinois wonders about my mental stability. A man double my age is calling me ‘ugly.’ In the past 48 hours, authors, war veterans, mothers of small children have told me I’m ignorant, worthless, brainwashed, classless, disgusting, hypocritical, and judgmental.”

MEME MANIA

At around the same time as the tattoo hullaballoo, college memes were invading the Facebook streams of students at schools throughout the U.S., Canada, and parts of Europe. Specifically, students were racing to start meme-focused Facebook pages for their schools before someone else claimed them.

The pages were generally not affiliated with student media or other recognized campus groups. Instead, they were the efforts of individual students or small groups of friends who have no ambition other than sharing a laugh and getting their peers’ attention.

A rash of reports and social media chatter confirmed undergraduates’ online experiences were suddenly hovering between “meme madness” and full-blown “meme mania.” As University of Iowa student outlet The Hook Up noted, “It’s not often that such a phenomenon takes off running with such fury and so little impetus. . . . Students are now meme-ing like they’ve never memed before.”

For example, in early February, a pair of University of Oregon freshmen launched a memes page dedicated to “images lampooning college life” at the Pac-12 school. It took off, within minutes, and continued to spread, non-stop. On its first day in action, the page roped in roughly 2,500 likes. On day two, University of Oregon Memes was on the front page of The Daily Emerald student newspaper.

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The start of the related story succinctly summarized the phenomenon at-large, noting, “When University freshmen Jack Hunter and Darin Shelstad created a Facebook page late Wednesday night to share inside jokes, they never expected it would become so popular. But it did. Overnight. Literally.”

RAPE, MURDER & PROSTITUTION JOKES

The student press April Fools’ editions were especially brutal this past year– both their content and the fallout surrounding some of their publications. The bloodiest receptions were reserved for The Daily Free Press at Boston University and The Maneater at the University of Missouri.

In early April, the editor in chief of the Daily Free Press was forced to resign following the distribution of a callous, poorly received satirical issue featuring drug use, sexual assault, and Disney characters. Spoof stories in the issue focused on Cinderella’s alleged involvement in a prostitution ring, BU frat brothers slipping Alice in Wonderland LSD, and the dwarfs from Snow White participating in a group rape of a female BU student.

Readers and outside media condemned the content for perpetuating a campus rape culture and mocking victims of sexual assault. As a Boston community news site story asked, “It’s just not April Fools’ Day without some Disney rape, murder, and prostitution jokes, eh?”

Soon after, both the editor in chief and managing editor of The Maneater resigned after publication of a similarly controversial April Fools’ issue named The Carpeteater. The issue contained a range of content that some readers deemed offensive to women and the LGBTQ community.

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As a Mizzou student wrote in a letter to the editor signed by more than 200 students, alumni, and employees at the school, “[T]his edition offers overtly offensive language including sections entitled ‘Camp*ssy’ and ‘Whore ‘Um’. . . . Derogatory profanity toward women isn’t funny. It isn’t satirical. It certainly isn’t journalism.”

To Be Continued…

To read the full review on PBS MediaShift, click here or on the screenshot below.

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