Covering a “triggerish” catastrophe: Georgia Southern University’s student newspaper reports a local story of racism that went viral (Part I)

While scrolling through Twitter, Matthew Enfinger found his university, Georgia Southern, had become a hot topic for all the wrong reasons. The senior writing and linguistics major, who serves as the editor-in-chief for the school’s newspaper, located tweets and screenshots about texts between two women who were to become roommates in the fall.

After the basic pleasantries of “getting to know you” texts were over, the white student apparently thought she had switched over to text another friend and wrote that her new African-American roommate didn’t “look too n****rish.” (EDITOR’S NOTE: She used the full word. I will not.)  Upon realizing she texted that to her new roommate, the white student blamed auto-correct, saying she meant “triggerish” as in “nothing that triggered a red flag.”

After he  heard from staffer Tandra Smith that this topic was trending on Facebook as well, Enfinger knew his paper, the George-Anne, had a big story on its hands. (Read the paper’s story here.) He also knew this story would echo far beyond his campus, so his crew had to make some serious choices about what to publish and what to avoid. Several of those choices could have ramifications for the students involved, other students on campus and the paper itself.

“One of the first things our staff did was reach out to both of the students,” Enfinger said in an email over the weekend. “While we were waiting for responses our original article did include the names of both the students involved in the situation, student reaction quotes and information that we had based off of social media posts. However, we received a response from ‘the receiver’ telling us she would like both their names to remain anonymous.”

The decision of whether to include names of people involved in any kind of incident often comes down to several factors: Do you have the names at your disposal? Are you sure you have the right names? How will this affect the people you name or the people you don’t? Other publications, such as the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, chose to name the sender.

Enfinger said two key things played a role in the staff’s decision to remove the names.

“We left both of the names out to respect that student’s wish and also we had no real way of proving that her roommate was the one who actually sent those messages,” he said. “All we had was just social media posts and we wanted to remain as unbiased to the situation and report only the facts that we were presented with.”

The paper also had to decide whether to post the screenshots of the text exchange, which were available online, that showcased the racial slur and the student’s apology. Enfinger said he and his staff discussed this issue thoroughly with the publication’s adviser, David Simpson, before deciding not to use the shots.

“We had no real way of proving these were not fabricated,” he said. “What if this turned out to be false? What if someone (else) typed that message? We had no clue and couldn’t defend it with facts. I’m not saying other media sources were entirely wrong for posting the screenshots. Looking back on it now I’m sure there was a way to use the screenshots and attribute the posts to the social media user but we were more focused on showing the student population reaction, the university’s reaction and the facts we had at hand.”

Finally, the paper had to decide if it should publish the full “N-word” or not. Some publications have a policy of simply referring to “the N-word” while others will write the whole word in each instance in which it is required. In this case, it was a derivation of the word itself, so it isn’t as clear cut. However, Enfinger said after discussing it with Simpson, he made the decision not to publish the word.

“I ultimately made the choice of not using the racial slur for many reasons,” Enfinger said. “One, I think using the full word shouldn’t ever be used even in reporting. There are many alternatives to describing was was said. We used asterisk to block out most of the word (so) our audience could understand what was said. I personally felt uncomfortable with the thought of typing out the word. Two, this wasn’t our main reason for not using the racial slur but it definitely encouraged our thought process of not using the word, but A.P. Style states that even the term ‘N-word’ should not be used unless under extreme circumstances.”

The reaction to the publication’s story was swift and loud, he said. The African-American community on campus reacted to the story and pushed the university to pay attention to this issue. The school issued a press release regarding the text exchange, affirming the school’s position against racism. Other media outlets followed the paper’s coverage, including some major, national publications, which Enfinger said was good to see.

“I would also like to thank The Washington Post, Buzz Feed and any other big media outlets that quoted our original article,” he said. “Student journalists put their hearts into their newsroom and having big outlets like The Washington Post quote us showed us our work is really valued and respected.”

(Tomorrow: What Enfinger said he and his crew learned from this and the four big lessons others can glean from the George-Anne’s experience with this story.)

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