NORTH CAROLINA — When the editorial board of the East Carolinian decided to print a full-frontal picture of a streaker, the front-page photo courted controversy – and apparently multiple instances of newspaper theft.
Of the Nov. 8 edition’s 9,000 copies, 600 may have been stolen. Paul Isom, director of student media at East Carolina University, said that number is a “conservative” estimate because the added attention presumably meant higher-than-usual readership. Isom said usually about 10 percent of the circulation remains on the stands, but the streaker issue had fewer than 10 physical copies remaining.
The controversial photo was taken at a Nov. 5 ECU home football game, where a streaker ran onto the field before being detained.
Isom identified three potential thefts. The first report came when a witness told the newspaper’s deliverer about a possible theft from racks.
A second tip came from TV station WITN’s website, where a poster claimed the papers had been removed from the ECU medical campus. The post read, “The paper is available to the public in every ECU building including EVERY ECU/PCMH MEDICAL CLINIC!!! … Needless to say they have been removed from every display rack around the Health Sciences Campus.”
Newspaper staff members also found stacks of the paper in the trash in a third location on the university’s main campus.
The East Carolinian received national attention for its uncensored front page, and Editor-in-Chief Caitlin Hale defended the paper’s decision to publish the unaltered photo.
“We decided that we wanted to, as an editorial board, publish the uncensored photos to give our readers, which are primarily college students, access to unedited photos,” she said.
Hale said the response from readers has been mixed.
“We’ve heard from not only students but professors affiliated with the university, a lot of communication journalism professors who have talked to us about it and maybe not necessarily would have made the same decision but still support it because they do understand the journalistic integrity that goes with the decision we made,” Hale said.
On the paper’s website, an anonymous message board called “Pirate Rants” has a variety of reader submissions in support of the front page and others lambasting the editors.
“TEC: You owe the entire student body, as well as the university, an apology. We are trying to erase our awful reputation and having a non-censored photo on the cover is a disgrace,” read one message. Another person wrote, “I will frame the front page of Tuesday’s paper.”
Student Press Law Center Executive Director Frank LoMonte said that just because the papers are free does not change the reality that a financial theft occurred.
“The fact that the papers are free is beside the point,” he said. “You can’t steal all the soup from the soup kitchen or all the winter coats from the homeless shelter and call it harmless because they were being given away for free.”
Isom estimates the paper took a $900 financial hit, based on adding print and staff expenses to its stated policy that “One copy of the East Carolinan is free, each additional copy is $1.” Isom said the student-run paper does not receive money from student activity fees, and revenues pay its student wages and printing costs.
The incidents were reported to ECU’s police department, and Isom said the police are looking into the theft. ECUPD did not return requests for comment.
“Whatever people think about the editors’ decision, there are right ways and wrong ways to make your opinion known, and emptying the racks is definitely the wrong way,” LoMonte said. “I hope the police treat this report seriously and impose consequences on anyone found to have destroyed papers to keep them from being read, because the point needs to be made that this isn’t acceptable behavior and it does real damage.”
Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified East Carolina University. The SPLC regrets the error.