Covering the rousing parties, philanthropic activities and exclusivity ofsocial fraternities and sororities on campus can be tricky ground for collegejournalists.
Bad press can upset well-connected students and stories of exclusive housescan mold cultural misconceptions. However, the Greek community often plays asignificant role on campus and is an important part of campus coverage.
Given the prominence of those involved in fraternities and sororities,experts and student journalists argue media scrutiny comes with theterritory.
Those choosing to be members of such organizations need to come to termswith their leadership position on campus and the risk of close scrutiny, saidSteven Good, director of education and technology at the Phi Delta Thetafraternity international headquarters in Oxford, Ohio. Good’s job involvesdealing with the media and public relations for the Greek organization and its162 chapters.
“If people know about you, people know of you, you’re going toget more press,” said Good. “Do papers highlight more bad press thangood? I don’t know.”Thefear of bad press has caused Greek leaders to take measures to protect theirreputation.
At the University of West Georgia in Carrollton, Ga., former WestGeorgian Editor-in-Chief Ellis Smith said he believes Greek leaders haveused their positions of power to limit the operation of the studentnewspaper.
In April, the university’s student government President Alan Websterproposed a bill that would temporarily freeze funding to the paper. Webster is aChi Phi fraternity member. The bill was introduced following a satirical opinionpiece about Greek life that appeared in the West Georgian the day before.The column sarcastically referred to fraternities as havens of rape and underagedrinking.
“What’s also great about being a part of a social frat is theset of opportunities one gains from being in a group of over-aggressivealcoholics that have no sense of responsibility. If you’re like me, thenyou probably know how great and freeing it feels to be a part of a pack, muchlike being a dog or a sheep,” Jacob Lovell wrote in the column “Joina Frat with Buck Futter, Jr.”
The bill said the newspaper’s name was “synonymous withdivision among students, faculty, and staff at the university as well asirresponsibly publishing faulty information and assumptions in a damaging matterto the Institution.”Smithsaid he allowed Lovell to write the column, not wanting to infringe on his rightto free speech. He said he does not know why Webster, who had typically been asupporter of the newspaper, would try to suspend it. Smith said he suspectsWebster’s Greek constituents, and their reaction to the story, were toblame.
“People need to realize the best solution to bad speech is morespeech, not shutting down speech,” Smith said. “The knee-jerkreaction is to shut down speech across the board. It’s just a basicfailure.”According to Smith,the relationship between the Greeks and the newspaper has not been affected toomuch by the incident and he credits that to the newspaper’s staffreporting the issue fairly and speaking with members of fraternities about therole of the newspaper.
“When we gave it to them straight, some people in the Greek communitygot introspective,” Smith said. “There was some immediate anger, andthen as people kind of understood, they took a step back.”
In 2008, the Pennsylvania State University Interfraternity Council (IFC)president pushed a public relations policy into effect that mandated fraternitymembers get approval before speaking to any member of the press, specificallythe student newspaper, the Daily Collegian.
An e-mail posted on the Collegian’s Web site from former IFCPresident Abraham Gitterman that circulated around the same time the policy wasproposed suggested the IFC was concerned with its image in the universitycommunity.
“This is a major issue right now, managing our image, and rebuildingour credibility with the University, Penn State, and all of the fraternity[communities] around the country,” said Gitterman in the e-mail to campusfraternities.
Gitterman also blamed the Collegian for the negative reputation ofthe Greek community.”They don’t look at our letters, they see’Frat.’ They look at us as ‘news,’ ‘drama,’and continue to bash our names, mess up our stories, and make false stories outof an ‘independent-confusion,’ ” wrote Gitterman.
The policy was implemented but removed a month later after Gittermanvoluntarily resigned as president before his term was up.
Collegian Editor-in-Chief Rossilynne Skena said the relationshipbetween the newspaper and the Greek community has improved since then. She saidshe believed Gitterman may have had personal issues with the press which led himto introduce such a policy.
“In this case I honestly feel like it was kind of a personal thing,an opinion,” Skena said.In amore crude form of censorship, some Greeks have resorted to stealing newspapersoff the racks when threatened by the newspaper’s coverage.
In 2006, the Sigma Chi fraternity chapter at the University of NorthCarolina in Chapel Hill, N.C., reportedly stole 10,000 copies of theuniversity’s student newspaper, the Daily Tar Heel. Thefraternity’s president came forward to apologize for the incident, and thenewspaper reported the papers were stolen to keep students from reading afront-page story about the fraternity’s hazing violation andsuspension.
The same year, members of the Zeta Tau Alpha sorority at Stetson Universityin Deland, Fla., responded to a story about mold in their house by stealingapproximately 700 copies of the newspaper. After the sorority came forward, theypaid $1,200 to reprint the Stetson Reporter.
Nearly one-fourth of all newspaper thefts reported to the Student Press LawCenter in the last decade involved the Greek community specifically.
The stories of hazing, pranks and underage drinking, when magnified on thefront page, can create undue negative reputations, according to one former Greekhouse leader.
“There are publications that do go out of their way, that nitpick andfind faults in groups that are perceived to be bad,” said Joe Russo,former Phi Delta Theta chapter president at Ashland University in Ohio.”What sells papers, what gets attention is when stories give in to thesensationalism.”Russo alsowrote a social and political column for the university’s studentnewspaper, the Collegian, and said the blame for these distortedperceptions often lies with Greek row rather than the newsroom.
“If you have a PR problem it is because you screwed somethingup,” Russo said. “If someone sees your fraternity as an’Animal House,’ it is probably for areason.”Dan Merica, seniorstaff member at Bentley University’s student newspaper, theVanguard, agrees. He said the gossip about Greek life often precedesnewspaper coverage and the blame for a negative reputation comes from what thecommunity is already talking about.
“There are a lot of rumors that go around college campuses,”said Merica, who wrote an investigative piece for the Vanguard afterhearing about disciplinary infractions within the Tau Kappa Epsilon fraternity.The group was permanently suspended from the Waltham, Mass., campus as a resultof the article Merica wrote. “It is the job of the newspaper to get thefactualinformation.”According toRusso, the Greek community is partly responsible for seeking out the coverage itwants from student media. He said having fellow Greeks in the newsroom increasedcoverage of events like Greek Week, a week-long celebration of Greek life,typically uniting the Greek community with events and fund-raisingopportunities. Greek Week is a popular occasion on campuses across thenation.
“I think fraternities, sororities or any organization that wants toget taken more seriously needs someone that is taking the lead on PRissues,” Russo said.
On the San Diego State University campus in San Diego, Calif., with morethan 50 Greek organizations, a Greek leader said getting the publicity he wantsis not such an easy task. San Diego State IFC President Eric Licata said theGreek community has a “decent” relationship with the studentnewspaper, the Daily Aztec, but good press is hard to come by.
“Getting enough publicity is the hardest thing,” said Licata.”They (the Aztec) also like to publish controversial issues ratherthan all the good the Greek communitydoes.”According to an editorfor the Vanderbilt University newspaper in Nashville, Tenn., the larger theGreek community on campus, the more effort required to cover it.
“Everything is in context. You have got to look at who you’recovering,” said Michael Warren, editor-in-chief of the Hustler.
The Hustler stirred up controversy when Warren chose to run themugshots of 54 members of the Sigma Chi fraternity arrested at acampground.
Comments left on the story’s online version suggest the Vanderbiltcommunity considered the decision to be in bad taste. Posts called for theresignation of editors and accused the newspaper of defamation and unethicalconduct.
According to Warren, the president of Sigma Chi requested Warren notpublish the photos. Warren said the story that ran with the photos was importantbecause it was one of the largest recorded arrests in the area and it was notmeant to sensationalize the event. He said the photos were meant to show themagnitude of the situation.
The staff at the Hustler responded to the criticism with a letterfrom the editor that said “the story was newsworthy and informative, yetthe pictures gave a much clearer story and highlighted the extraordinariness ofthe details.”Merica saidstories on the Greek life beat are a mixed bag of positive and negative for theGreeks. He said the bottom line is making sure the newspaper fulfills its dutyto the students.
“Obviously you’re going to cover the things people are talkingabout,” said Merica. “We’re not out to make people look bad.We’re truly just coveringstories.”Skena said theCollegian strives to cover the campus fairly and Greek organizationstypically are more prominent on campus; therefore, they attract more coverage.She said however, the newspaper does not go out of its way to find the negativepress.
“The thing with us is, if the art club violates some kind ofuniversity policy we would report on them just as much as a Greek organizationviolating a policy,” saidSkena.Merica and Russo agreestudent journalists can get in trouble when they go out of their way to find astory.
“When a newspaper starts covering Greek events specifically becausethey are looking for something ‘ some screw-up ‘ is when you get introuble,” saidMerica.Warren said the best betfor a newspaper to keep a good relationship with the Greek community is forstudent journalists to use discretion and consider what is a story and what isnot.
“Newspapers get a little too hopped up on things like underagedrinking violations,” Warren said. “It can devolve intosensationalism. There are good things that need to be talkedabout.”He said, he and hisstaff dealt with both the positive and negative reactions from the Greeks and atthe end of the day, his staff covered them like anyone else.
“I really tried to instill in my staff that ‘hey we are part ofthe community we need to cover the community like any real newspaper,'” Warren said. “I try not make it a big deal.”