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University of Wisconsin–Madison
School of Journalism and Mass Communication

The “worst people” on campus?

The Badger Herald, an independent student newspaper, ran an article Monday condemning University of Wisconsin students who bought tickets to the Rose Bowl and then scalped them for higher prices. The paper was rightly concerned about the system of distributing tickets for major games, such as UW’s first appearance in the Rose Bowl for a decade.

So far so good.  But the opinion page article made a major mistake.

It printed the names of students who had re-sold their tickets and placed their names under the headline: “The Worst People on Campus,” saying there surely is a special place in hell for such people. The headline and the naming of students were meant to be tongue-in-cheek.  Many people failed to see the humor. An uproar ensued.

The article was, well, sophomoric.  Journalists should consider the consequences of publishing any story. Ethical red flags should go up when you are thinking of naming students in a derogatory manner.

Naming the students was wrong on several counts. It is unfair to name just these students when many people over the years have scalped tickets, for a variety of reasons. Why pick them out of the lineup? Also, the naming was defamatory.

Most importantly, the naming violates journalism ethics’ principle of minimizing harm.  Naming the students causes harm by subjecting them to public abuse. Since what appears online seems to stay online forever, the naming could damage the students’ employment prospects. All a prospective employer has to do is “Google” the student’s name and it will pop up under the “Worst People on Campus” list.

Moreover, covering an issue incorrectly defeats the purpose of the story – to focus attention on the ticket system.  Now, all of the attention is on the naming of students.

Fixing stories

Next to making a serious mistake on a story, the biggest mistake in journalism is to not deal with the error properly. The best approach is to swiftly recognize one’s mistake, apologize unstintingly, explain what happened and say how editorial policies are being put in place to prevent it from happening again. Almost as bad as not apologizing — or trying to defend the indefensible — is giving confusing reasons for your remedial action.

On this score, the ‘fixing’ by the Badger Herald gets a low grade.

Yesterday, the paper’s editorial board published a statement that the story was tongue-in-cheek and it regrets the “pain” the story has caused. But the statement also said that “while we may debate the appropriateness of the running the list of names,” that “act” did generate much attention about an important issue.

Really? The naming is “debatable”? The paper should have said without qualification that naming was a mistake. Period. Saying that the naming did generate attention only confuses readers, and antagonizes the named students. The statement that “Hey we got people’s attention!” can be read as an attempt to justify the naming, after all.

It sounds like a weak half-apology.

Today, another curious development. The original story was changed online. For one thing, the students were no longer listed. An editorial note explained that the paper had taken down the names of the students. But again, the reasons given muddy the water.

The note said the names were removed out of fairness: “We don’t have the resources to continue fact-checking and adding the additional 200 or so names that have been submitted to the newspaper since the initial publication of “The Worst People on Campus.” Because of this, it would be unfair to single out the three dozen people previously listed on this page.

Hold on.

The most important reason to take down the names is that it is the right thing to do, not because you lack resources. The naming caused unjustifiable harm to students. Does this mean that if the paper had the resources, they would list their names?  So the paper doesn’t think it is wrong to name the students, after all is said and done? I’m confused.

I suggest that student newspapers turn this mistake into a learning moment.

The moral is that all newsrooms need clear and firm guidelines on how potentially harmful articles are to be discussed and decided upon. The guidelines should insist that all such stories should be vetted by a range of senior editors before publication. Also, the paper should have a code of ethics that spells out how issues of harm are to be balanced with the freedom to publish.

In this case, the guidelines either didn’t exist or were not followed.

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