Spartan did what it had to do
My Sept. 11 Newsgathering and Writing class lesson was to be about social media and the Internet and how it has changed the landscape of newspaper reporting.
I was going to talk about how now, with our newspaper websites and Facebook and Twitter, we can get news out as it’s unfolding, unlike the days of old when readers had to wait a day later for the print version on the front steps.
I was going to use the text example of how Facebook is a great way to publicize stories on your paper’s website and how Twitter is a vital, play-by-play tool to report court cases when cameras aren’t allowed in.
But a press release from the Vermont State Police changed that lesson. When students came in to the 9 a.m. class, I had the Spartan Twitter page and Facebook page on the overhead projector, both announcing that two CSC football stars had been charged with stealing sporting goods from Dick’s, where one worked.
Then I showed them the Spartan website, where a short story about the arrests had been posted. From about 8 to 8:45 a.m. that morning, the two Spartan editors wrote, set up interviews, tweeted and posted on Facebook. They tweeted and updated the story for hours, finally calling it a day around 9 p.m.
The Spartan is a club, mind you. Yes, some students get independent course credits to work on it, but it’s still a club.
The Spartan had the story before almost every area news outlet and by the end of the day the Associated Press had it and people were reading about it in Miami, California and North Carolina.
But almost as soon as the stories and tweets were posted about this news story, the comments started flooding in, many negative, but some defending the editors.
Some commented on how it’s the role of the Spartan to make the college look good. One frequent tweeter throughout the day even started name-calling (“#nerds”) and saying it was nobody’s business and that the Spartan should stop publishing and updating about the arrests. Those bothered me.
Spartan reporters aren’t nerds, in my opinion, nor is it their job to make the college look good. I would argue that most issues do make the college look good, with stories about triumphs and awards and profiles about outstanding students and faculty.
I was torn by this story. Students in my Newsgathering class may have seen me as excited about the story. I was more sick about it for the school and the football program and nervous that the Spartan editors, whom I advise, would be ultra careful and accurate with everything they did. My name is in the staff box, too.
I could see in the faces of my colleagues, who had taught one of the two players, how distraught they were. Students who are good friends with the players weren’t happy about the story, either. I didn’t like that the Spartan had to write these stories. But the Spartan DID have to write these stories.
Journalism students at Castleton State need to learn that when a story like this breaks, it simply has to be reported. Do the stories have the potential of putting the school in a bad light? Yes. Do the journalists relish that? No. But they must ask the questions and write the facts as they are presented and give the accused a chance to have their say, too.
Social media played a huge role in the dissemination of the news and the resulting comment fallout on Sept. 11, 2013. I hope the majority of the college community realizes that the messenger in this case was doing what it had to do.
David Blow is professor of communication at Castleton State College.