2013 College Media Year in Review: Top 10 Fights

This is part four of a quick series of posts providing a highlight and lowlight reel of the 2013 college media circus. More specifically, it is a review of the year’s most viral student press creations, performers and sideshows.

1. ‘No Paper, No Problem’

In January, near the start of spring semester, Florida A&M University officials temporarily suspended publication of The Famuan campus newspaper. They also removed the paper’s faculty adviser without much explanation. And they forced the student staff to reapply for their positions and “undergo training in media law and ethics . . . [and] more general journalism principles.”

These actions were announced roughly a month after a student filed a lawsuit against the Famuan alleging defamation. The suit contended the paper mishandled a portion of its reporting about the November 2011 hazing death of a FAMU music student, an incident that placed the university in a harsh, prolonged national spotlight.

Fighting back against the administrative intervention – one they described as “ungrounded and arbitrary” – some Famuan staffers launched a short-lived “rogue website.” Ink and Fangs – a reference to journalism and the school’s rattlesnake mascot – aimed to fill the student journalists’ “insatiable need to produce news and inform and communicate with the public and FAMU.” As the student in charge of Ink and Fangs told me soon after its launch, “You know, it’s a ‘no paper, no problem’ kind of deal.”

Meanwhile, a host of critics did see problems with the suddenness of the Famuan shutdown and the secrecy surrounding the adviser firing and student staff rehiring process. In rapid succession, the College Media Association, Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ) and Student Press Law Center (SPLC) expressed public concerns about what the latter organization called “a case of overkill that could not possibly hold up if challenged under the First Amendment.”

As SPLC executive director Frank LoMonte said at the time, “The very best possible way that you could characterize FAMU’s behavior, giving them the benefit of every doubt, is that they view their students with contempt. That’s the nicest possible thing you could say.”

Administrators have been tightlipped about the situation overall, although they did say the removal of the Famuan adviser was not linked to the lawsuit.

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2. ‘Vilification of the Vulva’

In August, an Australian campus newspaper’s attempt to “make a stance about body ownership” by running images of female students’ genitalia resulted in censorship and a press and social media maelstrom.

After staging very intimate photo shoots with willing young women, Honi Soit at the University of Sydney published uncensored, close-up images of 18 vaginas in a special front-page spread.

As editors explained in a Facebook post, “We are tired of having to attach anxiety to our vaginas. We are tired of vaginas being either artificially sexualized (see: porn) or stigmatized (see: censorship and airbrushing). We are tired of being pressured to be sexual, and then being shamed for being sexual. … The vagina should and can be depicted in a non-sexual way – it’s just another body part.”

The university did not concur. A school office that oversees the paper’s printing worried the photo collage ran afoul of national indecency laws (specifically 578C of the Australian NSW Crimes Act).

A compromised page was published with black bars blocking part of each image. But upon the issue’s distribution on campus “it was discovered the black bars were transparent and did little to cover the vaginas.” Administrators swooped in, carrying out a “dramatic recall” of all 4,000 copies of the issue.

National and international media coverage soon followed. The hashtag #vaginasoit spread fast on Twitter. Debates raged about the relative appropriateness of the photos and what happens “when pubic privates become public property.” A Tumblr user dubbed the school’s black-boxes-cum-recall nothing less than “The Vilification of the Vulva.” And with their website down due to a surge in traffic, Honi Soit editors issued a statement of defiance on the paper’s Facebook page – garnering lots of “Likes” and supportive comments.

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3. ‘Suspicion, Censorship & Moral Injustice’

In October, a high-profile athletic protest at Grambling State University led to a controversial battle between a faculty adviser and two student editors at The Gramblinite campus newspaper.

As sports fans recall, Grambling State football players earned mega-media attention in the middle of the season for publicly criticizing the poor conditions of their practice facilities and rough-at-times away game road-trips. To show their collective dismay, they refused to play a game against a conference rival, forcing the team to forfeit.

While at first overshadowed by the football brouhaha, the Gramblinite newsroom dysfunction eventually became a sideshow all its own – leaving the university “[r]eeling from heightened media attention, angry alumni, protesting students and scrutiny from press freedom groups.”

Wanda Peters, a faculty adviser with the paper, pushed to fire one editor for his coverage of the protest saga and briefly suspended another for her participation in a related campus rally. During a last-minute session staged at the 2013 ACP/CMA National College Media Convention, the editors said Peters also censored a letter to the editor about the football mess submitted by Grambling State’s student government president.

Peters told Columbia Journalism Review “I overstepped my bounds” in respect to her attempts to punish the editors. She said her efforts stemmed from what she saw as the students’ failure to follow the newspaper’s code of ethics regarding conflicts of interest and news-opinion separation.

In return, The Oklahoma Daily at the University of Oklahoma argued her actions were “lined with suspicion, censorship and moral injustice.” Student Press Law Center attorney advocate Adam Goldstein similarly said, “I’ve rarely encountered a school so outright committed to violating students’ rights. This is exactly what it was: government silencing dissent in the most heavy-handed, nauseating way possible.”

4. Sex & a ‘Seamy Episode’

In late March, Central New Mexico Community College earned a spurt of bad press for administrators’ brief suspension of the student newspaper. The daylong shutdown occurred almost immediately after The CNM Chronicle published a special sex edition.

Hours after it premiered on campus, college officials effectively fired Chronicle staffers and ordered them to leave the campus newsroom. They also removed copies of the issue from newsstands and “even pried the issue out of students’ hands if they saw them reading it.”

Initially, CNM officials said they censored the issue and shuttered the Chronicle short-term because the sexually explicit content was “offensive and not appropriate for the educational mission of CNM.” College president Katherine Winograd later explained they intervened due to concerns about a 17-year-old quoted in one of the pieces – even though the Chronicle confirmed the quote was given with the full knowledge and permission of the source and her parents and the Student Press Law Center said “there are no legal problems with including a minor.”

A day after the hubbub began, the college reinstated the Chronicle, but not without consequences. Along with professional press attention, The Daily Lobo at nearby University of New Mexico made news by publishing an issue with a black ‘X’ in place of almost all articles and photos – in protest of what it dubbed “a ruthless and authoritarian display of censorship.”

Roughly a month later, a letter to the editor in The Chronicle of Higher Education signed by nearly two dozen current and former CNMCC professors referred to the shutdown as a “seamy episode” in the school’s history.

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5. #MeganCoghlanSucks

During a weekend in mid-November, University of Arizona senior Megan Coghlan suddenly morphed into #MeganCoghlanSucks. The derisive Twitter hashtag was one part of a fairly massive cyberbullying campaign carried out – more or less – by Washington State University football supporters.

On the day before Arizona and Washington State were set to meet in a conference football match-up, Coghlan wrote an in-your-face Yahoo! Sports blog post denouncing Washington State for sporting “no real traditions, nothing to define itself, no rich football history and a sad lack of identity.” The post appeared on a blog known for its “trash-talk pre-game series” in which supporters from schools whose football squads are about to square off trade barbs.

It is normally all in good fun. But this time around, according to a local news report, Coghlan’s taunting inspired “thousands of expletive emails, Facebook messages and tweets. … Even a hashtag was created: #MeganCoghlanSucks. Coghlan said she received threats and people telling her to kill herself.”

As The Pacific Northwest Inlander confirmed, “When the Cougs actually won, Coghlan became the designated target of WSU fans’ celebratory rage. Fans found her Twitter account, forcing her to make it private. They found her on Instagram. They posted the college newsroom phone numbers for her and the editor-in-chief. Within the state, #MeganCoghlanSucks was briefly trending on Twitter.”

Coghlan, co-sports editor of UA’s student newspaper The Daily Wildcat, said people called her “a slut, whore, c*nt, bitch and many derogatory female-based terms. … For one weekend, I was the least popular person on Twitter, according to Washington State University fans. Not Miley Cyrus, not Barack Obama or Taylor Swift, but me. … I am not ashamed of what I wrote. I am ashamed of the reaction. Trash-talk is a part of sports. Harassment, sexism and threats should not be.”

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6. ‘A Newspaper’s Worst Nightmare’

In March, Michael Todd, a city councilman in Oswego, N.Y., filed a lawsuit against the Oswego State University student newspaper for incorrectly referring to him as a registered sex offender.

Roughly a month before, a report ran in The Oswegonian about a fight over a law barring sex offenders and recent felons from driving local taxis. The piece featured Todd prominently as an official who supports the law, in part because he feels “passengers of taxis should not have to risk their safety when getting into a taxi.” Unfortunately, the Oswegonian article published in print and originally run online wrongly identified Todd as a sex offender himself, along with a few other errors.

According to Syracuse’s Post-Standard, Todd’s suit “alleges that the newspaper made a ‘false and defamatory statement’ causing Todd ‘financial loss, ridicule and public humiliation.’”

Oswegonian editor-in-chief Aimee Hirsch said after the mistaken story’s publication, “[T]his is a newspaper’s worst nightmare, especially for us since, as a student newspaper, one of our primary goals is learning and developing our skills for future careers in journalism. My newspaper staff and I have been sick with grief over this error, and feel terrible about what Todd and his family are going through because of it.”

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7. ‘Practically Blacked Out’

Andrea Gallo, editor-in-chief The Daily Reveille at Louisiana State University, sued the school this past spring to obtain records related to its recent presidential search. As Gallo said, “I was hoping throughout the entire search process that LSU would work with us so we, as reporters, could give our readers insight into who the next president of LSU would be and what qualities we were looking for in that person. It became apparent pretty early on that our access was not only limited, but practically blacked out.” Alas, she lost the suit.

8. State Trooper Theft

Over the summer, a Florida state trooper confessed to stealing roughly 3,000 copies of The Spinnaker at the University of North Florida. The law enforcement officer took part in the theft to protect a friend who had been arrested on campus for video voyeurism and was featured in the Spinnaker’s police beat section.

9. Photographed in the Act

In March, a pair of fraternity pledges at Tulane University admitted stealing and trashing more than 2,000 copies of The Hullabaloo student newspaper. The motivation for the students’ mass grab-and-toss: a front-page Hullabaloo story on a drug bust at the Kappa Sigma house. By chance, a staff writer for the paper spotted and photographed them in the act, leading to a quick ID by university police.

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10. ‘Prank Tharunka’

This past spring, a media lecturer at Australia’s University of Sydney ordered his students to create and pitch fake news stories to Tharunka, the campus newspaper at the University of New South Wales. The Sydney students in the lecturer’s media politics course were even told to lie about their backgrounds in order to help secure publication for their faux pieces.

The project’s name: Prank Tharunka. Peter Chen, the lecturer, planned to count it as 25 percent of students’ final grades.

Unsurprisingly, the prank project angered the country’s Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance – an MEAA spokesperson called it, simply, “wrong and stupid.”

A student in the class shared, “For someone who’d one day want to go into journalism I have a major ethical problem with trying to print lies.”

Tharunka editor Lily Ray similarly wrote at the time, “Memo to media studies lecturers and tutors anywhere on earth: Feel free to tell your students to write for Tharunka. We love getting contributions, we love being controversial, we love making people think and we love it that you love us. But let’s keep it real, can we?”

By comparison, the lecturer Chen did not fully agree with the criticism. As he argued about the assignment, “This is not a dangerous activity –  we’re not cutting people’s organs out of their stomachs.”

To read my full year in review on Poynter, click here or on the screenshot below.

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