Four things students can learn from a college newspaper’s coverage of a racist text (Covering a “triggerish” catastrophe, Part II)

Yesterday’s post looked at the George-Anne’s coverage of a racist exchange between two potential roommates at Georgia Southern University. Editor-in-chief Matthew Enfinger outlined the paper’s reasoning behind publishing certain aspects of the story while omitting other details, such as the screenshots of the text and the actual word itself.

Enfinger said that the paper’s story was successful for several reasons, not the least of which was the amount of people who contributed to the piece.

“I would have to say one of the lessons learned from this experience is that dividing (the) labor on this article really helped our paper be one of the first media outlets to have a story out,” he said in an email over the weekend. “One person could’ve (done) the story but dividing the work load really allowed our newspaper to make fast and accurate reporting all while working together as a team.”

The collaborative process also helped Enfinger decide what approach the paper would take on the story. Over the years in journalism, I often noted that the head editor was the person with access to “the big red button.” In other words, it was that person’s decision in the end, but it always helped to have other perspectives in the discussion prior to pressing the button.

“I would like to give a very big thank you to my staff, particularly McClain Baxely and Tandra Smith for really stepping up and working with me on this article,” Enfinger said. “Their dedication and drive to telling this important story really showed in the quality of the work. I’m forever grateful to them. I would also like to thank our advisor David Simpson of taking my hundreds of questions and using his years of experience in journalism to walk us through this story but still gave us the control over the article.”

I asked Enfinger if he had any particular takeaways or lessons he learned as part of this process and he came up with four great ones that should help you if you ever run into a big story with a lot of potential landmines. He had some great suggestions, so here’s Matthew:

There are so many things I’d like to share with students about this experience:

  1. If your community is showing concerns about a specific issue or topic, start looking into it and report on it. A past editor at The George-Anne, Corey Leonard, use to describe covering news like playing football. “If it hits you in the hands you’ve got to catch it.” This story hit out staff in the hands and we caught it. I believe there isn’t a bigger way to fail in journalism than not looking and reporting on topics that your community is concerned about and/or constantly talking about.


  1. Don’t write these stories alone. I worked closely with our Enterprise/Features Managing Editor Tandra Smith and Sports Editor McClain Baxely in working on this piece. Each of us had different tasks that allowed us to report fast but also be a good check system. If one of us were stuck at one point all three of us talked through it. At The George-Anne we have a rule that everyone reports breaking news. Working as a team not only helps you be among the first but to be right as well.


  1. Being right is always better than being first. Fact check. Fact check. Fact check. Especially in situations like this be sure to be very accurate with your attributions and your facts.
  2. Watch your bias. In journalism we work to be as unbiased as possible. For example. I do not tolerate the use of any racial profanity. It makes me sick to my stomach. However, in this article all we had was social media posts that showed the racial slur being used but we could not prove who said it. My staff and I had to make sure that this piece wasn’t a piece calling for punishment of the students but instead report the fact and reactions. Another way to stay unbiased as possible is to reach out to both parties involved and allow each a chance to speak out. In this case only “the receiver replied.”


To continue following the George-Anne’s work on this and many other stories, visit the publication’s website here.

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