Minnesota Daily Photos of Student Drinking & Drug Use Stir Reactions, Questions

The Minnesota Daily provoked some arched eyebrows, at least a few guffawed social media reactions and one administrative email for a candid photo spread published last week as part of a report on student drug use and drinking in campus dorms.

The report itself is mostly innocuous, a by-the-numbers rundown of cited infractions over the past five years in University of Minnesota residence halls. Unsurprisingly, the largest chunk of documented dorm-related bad behavior is linked to alcohol and illegal drug use. Cue the provocative photos — displaying in-progress student consumption or preparation of substances such as marijuana and MDMA.

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As part of their reporting for the story, reporter Kia Farhang and photographer Lisa Persson traipsed through campus dorms on three separate evenings earlier this month. As Persson shared over the weekend on JimRomenesko.com:

“The reporter and I were escorted into each residence hall by a known current resident. Once inside, the reporter and I walked down the halls and listened for activity in various rooms. If we heard noises that we associated with partying or potential drug use (music, people talking about drinking, hearing bottles clinking, hearing lighters sparking, etc), we would knock on the door, explain the project, and ask if we could observe their activities and take photos for about 10 minutes.”

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The knock-and-observe tactic also led to the story’s lede. As Farhang writes:

“Four women knelt around an overturned storage bin in a Territorial Hall dorm room Friday night, each clutching a rolled-up $100 bill to her nose. Four lines of Molly — a form of MDMA — sat below them. Orange juice and pretzel chips stood ready to wash away the taste. ‘I’m sweating, you guys,’ one woman said. ‘I’m so nervous.'”

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The Daily worked to keep the sniffing-snorting-boozing-smoking students’ identities secret through anonymity in the final article and close-up photos revealing no faces or much background. Although the school’s PR director reached out to the Daily after the photos appeared, at least at this point there has been no word of fallout for the students or the paper (the latter in part for walking the tricky tightrope of reporting in residence halls).

What do you think? Excellent glimpse at real-world student activity? Great reporting enabling a stats story to be brought to life at least a bit? A wonderful dialogue-starter on campus, underscoring the paper’s usefulness?

Or is it dabbling in exploitation, taking advantage of students who may be anonymous on spec but now have breadcrumbs out there by which they can be identified (and maybe even punished)? Separately, what about the decision to post the photos on Instagram, separate from the main slideshow on the Daily website and without a lot of context? As you can see in the comment below and via the Romenesko tipster, at least a few people were confused and maybe even a bit disturbed by the randomness of such images appearing under the Daily brand.

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