It can take years of reporting and dozens of articles for a college newspaper to establish a positive relationship with a student organization. One lapse in judgment, however, can shatter years of trust.
The State News, the independent student newspaper at Michigan State University, experienced this firsthand Monday when a photo published in its features section upset some members of the institution’s black community. In response, editors removed the photo from the news organization’s website Monday afternoon.
The photo, which accompanied event coverage for the black Greek community’s annual step dance competition, captured a member of the winning fraternity throwing both middle fingers up in celebration.
Twitter erupted with complaints and members of the student body used #dobetterStateNews to condemn the photo for perpetuating negative racial stereotypes and for misrepresenting the university’s black community.
Other tweets argued the newspaper’s coverage didn’t focus on the cultural elements of the event or give enough mention to the winning sorority.
Celeste Botte, The State News’ editor in chief, said the photo made its way into the paper because of an oversight — on first glance, it appeared the fraternity brother was pointing two index fingers.
But, she said, there was no excuse for running the photo, a mistake editors should have caught.
Monday afternoon, a group of black student leaders collected hundreds of copies of Monday’s issue and carried them to the newsroom, requesting a meeting with the paper’s editors.
The resulting two-hour discussion allowed the leaders to express their concerns, helping Botte understand how the paper could better serve the university’s minority community, she said.
“It was certainly not an easy discussion, but it wound up being an important one,” Botte said.
The State News printed an apology on page 2 of Tuesday’s paper. Published apologies from Botte, as well as the paper’s photo editor, ran alongside different photos from the event and coverage of the controversy.
The State News also reprinted a column, which originally ran Monday and reflected on Black History Month, in Tuesday’s opinion section.
Black Student Alliance President Rashad Timmons’ column highlighted the importance of Black History Month and challenged readers to continue conversations about race after the month’s end.
Both black student leaders and State News editors agreed anger about the photo overshadowed the column, Botte said.
The incident has also opened communication between State News editors and the black student leadership on campus, something Botte said she wishes The State News had better established earlier.
A college newspaper should be somewhere for young journalists to learn and grow, Botte said. Sometimes, errors in judgement are part of the learning process.
“The truth is, if even part of your audience doesn’t trust you or has ill feelings toward you, it’s very counterproductive, more so for student papers than for most media outlets,” Botte said.
Botte said the paper overhauled its production schedule this semester, allowing for less time to produce the paper. Although she said deadlines are no excuse for errors, The State News is treating this situation as an opportunity to reflect on whether the staff is getting too caught up in the haste of the new schedule.
The incident has been a “wakeup call”, proving the need to handle each story — whether hard news or a feature — with equal care, she said.
The State News looks at this as an opportunity to work with the black student community to expand their understanding and improve coverage, Botte said.
“I think we made an important first step,” Botte said, “and we’re doing everything we can to make our coverage better.”
Contact SPLC staff writer Katherine Schaeffer by email or at (202) 974-6318.