The Rape Cheer Controversy: Should Student Press Ever Protect Sources From Themselves?

A “student rape cheer” caused controversy earlier this semester at the University of British Columbia. It also led to an interesting ethics kerfuffle involving the Ubyssey, UBC’s awesome student newspaper. Its central question: Does the student press ever have an obligation to protect sources from themselves– even when they’re telling the truth?

The 90-second summary: UBC students have long recited an eye-opening chant during orientation. Even while ostensibly meant in jest, the words they scream in unison are, well, appalling. Ready? “Y-O-U-N-G at UBC we like em young Y is for yourrr sister O is for ohh so tight U is for under age N is for noo consent G is for goo to jail.”

The Ubyssey recently reported on this rapey recitation. The story, as you might expect, went viral. While the public reacted and the school reeled, a side fallout of the imbroglio centered on a student source quoted by the Ubyssey in its write-up. 

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Specifically, amid BS PR statements offering lame apologies or claims of ignorance, one of the student orientation leaders present for the most recent cheer told the harsh truth. Basically, she confirmed the cheer has been around for a while. No one’s proud of it. The student leaders try to keep it out of the public spotlight. But beyond duct tape over students’ mouths, there isn’t really an effective method to stop it from being spoken.

Her words: “I think it’s all passed down year after year … from forever, I guess. It’s not something we can control, to be honest. … There’s only so much you can do with somebody who wants to publicly state something.”

Her blunt honesty provoked so much ire the Ubyssey published a note from two editors explaining why and how staff gathered information from that student and others for the report.

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The angry masses apparently singled out the student leader and a few of her peers quoted in the piece for having the gall to confirm the cheer’s existence and for their lack of pure rage when speaking about it. The related blowback against the Ubyssey: Shouldn’t the paper have warned students with no media experience about the potential consequences of such controversial on-the-record quotes?

In their note, news editor Sarah Bigam and features editor Arno Rosenfeld argued they followed reporting rules to a tee. The problem, from their perspective, is a misdirected reader focus on the words of a few– even when they were simply representing the sentiments of many. In their words:

“The important point we’d like to make is that the students whose quotes we published were not exceptional. Every student we approached agreed to be interviewed and confirmed the cheer’s existence. This includes not only the students quoted in the article, but a room full of [business] students studying in [a campus building] lounge and others whose quotes didn’t make it into print. In fact, the reason we quoted as many students as we did was to show readers that you couldn’t ‘blame’ anyone for exposing the cheer. … The blame for the cheer should not fall at the feet of … the FROSH co-chair who is quoted extensively in our article. She agreed to be interviewed about her planning of FROSH, and unlike university employees or even elected student officials, [she] had no media training. Her honest explanations are simply reflective of a larger attitude within [a related student organization]– and elsewhere in society– that has legitimized glib songs about rape for many, many years. We hope readers will understand our coverage of the Y-O-U-N-G cheer as highlighting something bigger than the words of the handful of individuals we spoke to in order to source our initial article.”

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