Georgia Southern University’s student newspaper, the George-Anne, took a single incident of racism on its campus that went viral and decided to do more than a single hit-and-run story. As we noted here earlier, the paper’s staff, led by Editor in Chief Matthew Enfinger, took on the larger issue of race relations on the campus in a project it launched this week called “Let’s Talk About the N-Word.”
Staffers sat at tables around the campus, asking people to provide personal insights about race, racism and the “n-word” itself. Members of the campus community had the opportunity to write their thoughts on index cards and return them anonymously.
“Following the ‘triggerish incident’ we covered over the summer, our adviser David Simpson and myself agreed that the conversation about this specific topic didn’t end with just one article,” Enfinger said in an email Thursday. “It would be an ongoing discussion that we could be a part of. I’m a big fan of Post Secret and their content inspired the idea for this project. I figured if we could serve as a platform for the Georgia Southern community it could be a conversation driver for a topic that is really important/impacts our audience.”
The George-Anne then published a special report on the results of the project, along with images of all 300-some cards that the paper received. Opinion Editor Ashley Jones also penned a larger piece that explained the reason behind the project as well as how the paper decided to approach it.
“We wanted other students as well anyone who picked up a copy of the paper to see how the campus not only reacted to the ‘triggerish’ incident but also to get a sense of how students really felt about racism on our campus,” Jones wrote in an email Thursday. “I think quiet racism has been a big problem for Georgia Southern as an institution. Not so much with faculty and staff members but within the student body.”
Jones said that, like most complex issues, the project received an array of responses from the student body.
“There are a lot of students who are supporting our project but online we have received some negative comments,” she said. “Some students were reluctant when we first began tabling. They would just walk past me and ignore me or just say no. Then there were students who thought this was ‘not a good idea’ and would only provoke others to make racist comments anonymously. That was not the case at all, many students took this seriously and were really excited for their voices to be heard.”
The staff of the George-Anne knew people had concerns like those Jones mentioned, but Enfinger said everyone involved felt convinced the project could lead to a broader sense of openness regarding this topic.
“We were convinced that this project would be a driver of a campus wide conversation about the derogatory term and racism in general…” he said. “When walking around campus I see students reading that section of the paper. I think it’s been a pretty successful piece.”
Both Enfinger and Jones said the staff members involved in the paper’s decision to tackle this project really dedicated themselves to making the project more than a vanity exercise. The project had many risks, but in the end the rewards were more than worth it, they said.
“I learned that if you really want to make a change then you have to be consistent…” Jones said. “This is definitely not the end of the n-word project. I also learned that, as cliche as this may sound, anything is possible if you put hard work and dedication into it.”
Enfinger said he was proud of Jones and everyone else who decided to help the paper step out of its more traditional role and promote a larger discussion of an important and yet difficult topic.
“All articles need to be backed by facts and proof but in this particular story the fact is that there are vastly different thoughts and outlooks on this singular word,” he wrote. “I hope this piece will influence productive conversations among all our readers. I agree that journalist shouldn’t write from the mindset of an activist but that does not mean you should ignore topics brought on by your audience.”