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BU editors make foolish mistake

Published: April 5, 2012
Section: Opinions


When student journalists make mistakes, the community notices. We face unique pressure on a daily or weekly basis. When we make the wrong decision, thousands of people read about it the next morning. Accountability to readers—apologies, explanations or retractions—cannot change what we choose to write and print.

After The Daily Free Press, Boston University’s independent student newspaper, published an April Fools’ issue on Monday poking fun at rape, the board of directors, chaired by former editor-in-chief Annie Ropeik, asked Chelsea Diana to resign as editor-in-chief.

In a year when the university faced growing criticism for its lax culture toward campus sexual assault attitudes and policies, with two BU hockey players arrested for sexual assault, Diana and the Free Press erred greatly.

Society and colleges in particular do not take sexual assault seriously enough. Making light of it in a student newspaper is irresponsible. But so too are April Fools’ editions.

As journalists, we dissect the issues confronting our community—interviewing sources, researching facts, analyzing context, exploring divergent viewpoints—and write about them to inform the public. How can we maintain readers’ trust and sources’ faith in objective reporting if on April 1 we publicly mock and deride the same university officials, students and topics we write about each week?

The Hoot editorial board chose not to print an April Fools edition this year to preserve journalistic integrity and the community respect we work tirelessly to earn each week. Journalists are reporters, not satirists. Students searching for satire on a college campus can watch comedy groups perform. Not turn to the front page of a newspaper. Many college editors look forward to April Fools’ editions each year but forget that far fewer students find them funny.

The Daily Free Press received intense scrutiny and criticism this week and rightfully so. But the blame should not fall squarely on Diana’s shoulders.

In a letter published online Tuesday, Ropeik apologized for the joke, defended the paper and showed little loyalty to her colleague.

“In making the ultimate decision to run many of the articles, however well-intentioned, fictional or joking they may have been, Editor-in-Chief Chelsea Diana in no way perpetuated our values as an organization,” Ropeik wrote.

Ropeik was right when she wrote, “we cannot apologize sincerely enough to all those who were offended by the inexcusable editorial judgment.” But she was wrong to place the majority of blame on Diana.

Pundits can criticize leaders for their organization’s failures and errors. But when peers and former editors do so in public it is different.

I am not defending or excusing what Diana did. Like The Free Press and student newspapers across the country, at The Hoot we reported in-depth news stories about campus sexual assault policies, demanding that our community answer the uncomfortable but urgent questions surrounding the topic. Diana and The Free Press acted with poor judgment and deserve intense criticism.

But as the editor of my college newspaper, I empathize with the response to her actions. Diana’s mistake is public, not hidden or limited the way college athletes receive the comfort and shelter of their teammates and coach when they fail.

Now Diana’s mistake is on the front page of The Boston Globe’s website, next to the mistake of Tim Cahill, charged with using $1.6 million in ad money from the state lottery to fund his 2010 gubernatorial campaign. Yet Cahill, a former state treasurer chose to enter public life, knowing well the public scrutiny that accompanies it. Diana is a 19-year-old college sophomore.

The Globe editorial board recognized the unique pressure on student journalists this week, writing, “When college athletes blunder during an important game, they may face the scorn of teammates, coaches and fans. But unless they seriously foul up on or off the field—by breaking the law, for instance—they aren’t kicked off the team.”

And if they are kicked off, their coach—not their teammates—makes the decision privately.

College journalists do not have a coach. There is no supervisor to whom they report. Yes, we have faculty advisers and former editors with whom we consult, but ultimately the responsibility is ours.

Unlike most student athletes, for example, we are student journalists but also professional journalists. The news we publish directly produces tangible impacts and consequences in the lives of other people.

No doubt Diana screwed up this week. But professors or administrators who criticize her should remember the pressure she faces each day—one that few other students can understand.

And her colleagues should remember they were part of the mistake, not innocent from it. At the very least, Diana could have resigned on her own terms, not theirs.