Editorial: Journalistic integrity not a laughing matter

At issue: BU newspaper rape jokes no laughing matter.
Our take: Incident a lesson for college journalists everywhere.

Boloco’s April Fool’s Day email may have given Emerson students momentary heart attacks with its claims to remove all free burritos and raise prices, but some tomfoolery this Sunday proved more offensive than funny.

On the college newspaper front, the weekend began on a positive note as scores of student newspaper editors gathered at Harvard University’s Nieman Foundation for Journalism to attend the Christopher Georges Conference on College Journalism. Days later, our fellow conference invitees and counterparts at The Daily Free Press, Boston University’s independent student newspaper, sparked national controversy with an April Fool’s Day edition that made light of gang rape and drug sales.

The intended satire turned sour in light of recent events on BU’s campus, where two students were arrested earlier this year on sex-related charges. Adding insult to injury, the Free Press staff made these negligent attempts at comedy during National Sexual Assault Awareness Month.

Over the years, this newspaper has printed its share of errors and lapses in editorial judgment. The media firestorm ignited by the BU student paper’s insensitivity reminds us that, as student journalists, the freedom we have comes with great responsibility. There is a line between what can and should be printed, and that line is one journalists examine on a daily basis. It is our job to tread cautiously to avoid upsetting that delicate balance.

Corrections, clarifications and the occasional retraction and apology are par for the course for any newspaper: at colleges and in the most esteemed newsrooms around the world. Writers and editors who devote their careers to reporting and parsing the truth risk their reputations and credibility to do it well, but mistakes inevitably happen. As students, it is also our job to learn by doing—but we would be bad journalists to hide behind that learning curve. Instead, those errors are to be taken seriously and heeded for the future.

The sensitivity of the work with which journalists are charged, and its natural space for human error, require both our discretion and vigilance. Reporting all the news that’s fit to print on a college campus is a daunting enough undertaking without courting undue scandal by cracking wise about assault.

Usually, we’re faced with our own mistakes from which to learn. Unfortunately, for The Daily Free Press, college journalists across the country have theirs to learn from this week. A bad day for one collegiate newspaper is a moment for all college journalists to pause and examine the risks, limits, and goals of what we do.