The Greek beat

Parties, pledging and philanthropy

Covering the rousing parties, philanthropic activities and exclusivity of social fraternities and sororities on campus can be tricky ground for college journalists.

Bad press can upset well-connected students and stories of exclusive houses can mold cultural misconceptions. However, the Greek community often plays a significant role on campus and is an important part of campus coverage.

Given the prominence of those involved in fraternities and sororities, experts and student journalists argue media scrutiny comes with the territory.

Those choosing to be members of such organizations need to come to terms with their leadership position on campus and the risk of close scrutiny, said Steven Good, director of education and technology at the Phi Delta Theta fraternity international headquarters in Oxford, Ohio. Good's job involves dealing with the media and public relations for the Greek organization and its 162 chapters.

"If people know about you, people know of you, you're going to get more press," said Good. "Do papers highlight more bad press than good? I don't know."The fear of bad press has caused Greek leaders to take measures to protect their reputation.

At the University of West Georgia in Carrollton, Ga., former West Georgian Editor-in-Chief Ellis Smith said he believes Greek leaders have used their positions of power to limit the operation of the student newspaper.

In April, the university's student government President Alan Webster proposed a bill that would temporarily freeze funding to the paper. Webster is a Chi Phi fraternity member. The bill was introduced following a satirical opinion piece about Greek life that appeared in the West Georgian the day before. The column sarcastically referred to fraternities as havens of rape and underage drinking.

"What's also great about being a part of a social frat is the set of opportunities one gains from being in a group of over-aggressive alcoholics that have no sense of responsibility. If you're like me, then you probably know how great and freeing it feels to be a part of a pack, much like being a dog or a sheep," Jacob Lovell wrote in the column "Join a Frat with Buck Futter, Jr."

The bill said the newspaper's name was "synonymous with division among students, faculty, and staff at the university as well as irresponsibly publishing faulty information and assumptions in a damaging matter to the Institution."Smith said he allowed Lovell to write the column, not wanting to infringe on his right to free speech. He said he does not know why Webster, who had typically been a supporter of the newspaper, would try to suspend it. Smith said he suspects Webster's Greek constituents, and their reaction to the story, were to blame.

"People need to realize the best solution to bad speech is more speech, not shutting down speech," Smith said. "The knee-jerk reaction is to shut down speech across the board. It's just a basic failure."According to Smith, the relationship between the Greeks and the newspaper has not been affected too much by the incident and he credits that to the newspaper's staff reporting the issue fairly and speaking with members of fraternities about the role of the newspaper.

"When we gave it to them straight, some people in the Greek community got introspective," Smith said. "There was some immediate anger, and then as people kind of understood, they took a step back."

In 2008, the Pennsylvania State University Interfraternity Council (IFC) president pushed a public relations policy into effect that mandated fraternity members get approval before speaking to any member of the press, specifically the student newspaper, the Daily Collegian.

An e-mail posted on the Collegian's Web site from former IFC President Abraham Gitterman that circulated around the same time the policy was proposed suggested the IFC was concerned with its image in the university community.

"This is a major issue right now, managing our image, and rebuilding our credibility with the University, Penn State, and all of the fraternity [communities] around the country," said Gitterman in the e-mail to campus fraternities.

Gitterman also blamed the Collegian for the negative reputation of the Greek community."They don't look at our letters, they see 'Frat.' They look at us as 'news,' 'drama,' and continue to bash our names, mess up our stories, and make false stories out of an 'independent-confusion,' " wrote Gitterman.

The policy was implemented but removed a month later after Gitterman voluntarily resigned as president before his term was up.

Collegian Editor-in-Chief Rossilynne Skena said the relationship between the newspaper and the Greek community has improved since then. She said she believed Gitterman may have had personal issues with the press which led him to introduce such a policy.

"In this case I honestly feel like it was kind of a personal thing, an opinion," Skena said.In a more crude form of censorship, some Greeks have resorted to stealing newspapers off the racks when threatened by the newspaper's coverage.

In 2006, the Sigma Chi fraternity chapter at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, N.C., reportedly stole 10,000 copies of the university's student newspaper, the Daily Tar Heel. The fraternity's president came forward to apologize for the incident, and the newspaper reported the papers were stolen to keep students from reading a front-page story about the fraternity's hazing violation and suspension.

The same year, members of the Zeta Tau Alpha sorority at Stetson University in Deland, Fla., responded to a story about mold in their house by stealing approximately 700 copies of the newspaper. After the sorority came forward, they paid $1,200 to reprint the Stetson Reporter.

Nearly one-fourth of all newspaper thefts reported to the Student Press Law Center in the last decade involved the Greek community specifically.

The stories of hazing, pranks and underage drinking, when magnified on the front page, can create undue negative reputations, according to one former Greek house leader.

"There are publications that do go out of their way, that nitpick and find faults in groups that are perceived to be bad," said Joe Russo, former Phi Delta Theta chapter president at Ashland University in Ohio. "What sells papers, what gets attention is when stories give in to the sensationalism."Russo also wrote a social and political column for the university's student newspaper, the Collegian, and said the blame for these distorted perceptions often lies with Greek row rather than the newsroom.

"If you have a PR problem it is because you screwed something up," Russo said. "If someone sees your fraternity as an 'Animal House,' it is probably for a reason."Dan Merica, senior staff member at Bentley University's student newspaper, the Vanguard, agrees. He said the gossip about Greek life often precedes newspaper coverage and the blame for a negative reputation comes from what the community is already talking about.

"There are a lot of rumors that go around college campuses," said Merica, who wrote an investigative piece for the Vanguard after hearing about disciplinary infractions within the Tau Kappa Epsilon fraternity. The group was permanently suspended from the Waltham, Mass., campus as a result of the article Merica wrote. "It is the job of the newspaper to get the factual information."According to Russo, the Greek community is partly responsible for seeking out the coverage it wants from student media. He said having fellow Greeks in the newsroom increased coverage of events like Greek Week, a week-long celebration of Greek life, typically uniting the Greek community with events and fund-raising opportunities. Greek Week is a popular occasion on campuses across the nation.

"I think fraternities, sororities or any organization that wants to get taken more seriously needs someone that is taking the lead on PR issues," Russo said.

On the San Diego State University campus in San Diego, Calif., with more than 50 Greek organizations, a Greek leader said getting the publicity he wants is not such an easy task. San Diego State IFC President Eric Licata said the Greek community has a "decent" relationship with the student newspaper, the Daily Aztec, but good press is hard to come by.

"Getting enough publicity is the hardest thing," said Licata. "They (the Aztec) also like to publish controversial issues rather than all the good the Greek community does."According to an editor for the Vanderbilt University newspaper in Nashville, Tenn., the larger the Greek community on campus, the more effort required to cover it.

"Everything is in context. You have got to look at who you're covering," said Michael Warren, editor-in-chief of the Hustler.

The Hustler stirred up controversy when Warren chose to run the mugshots of 54 members of the Sigma Chi fraternity arrested at a campground.

Comments left on the story's online version suggest the Vanderbilt community considered the decision to be in bad taste. Posts called for the resignation of editors and accused the newspaper of defamation and unethical conduct.

According to Warren, the president of Sigma Chi requested Warren not publish the photos. Warren said the story that ran with the photos was important because it was one of the largest recorded arrests in the area and it was not meant to sensationalize the event. He said the photos were meant to show the magnitude of the situation.

The staff at the Hustler responded to the criticism with a letter from the editor that said "the story was newsworthy and informative, yet the pictures gave a much clearer story and highlighted the extraordinariness of the details."Merica said stories on the Greek life beat are a mixed bag of positive and negative for the Greeks. He said the bottom line is making sure the newspaper fulfills its duty to the students.

"Obviously you're going to cover the things people are talking about," said Merica. "We're not out to make people look bad. We're truly just covering stories."Skena said the Collegian strives to cover the campus fairly and Greek organizations typically are more prominent on campus; therefore, they attract more coverage. She said however, the newspaper does not go out of its way to find the negative press.

"The thing with us is, if the art club violates some kind of university policy we would report on them just as much as a Greek organization violating a policy," said Skena.Merica and Russo agree student journalists can get in trouble when they go out of their way to find a story.

"When a newspaper starts covering Greek events specifically because they are looking for something ' some screw-up ' is when you get in trouble," said Merica.Warren said the best bet for a newspaper to keep a good relationship with the Greek community is for student journalists to use discretion and consider what is a story and what is not.

"Newspapers get a little too hopped up on things like underage drinking violations," Warren said. "It can devolve into sensationalism. There are good things that need to be talked about."He said, he and his staff dealt with both the positive and negative reactions from the Greeks and at the end of the day, his staff covered them like anyone else.

"I really tried to instill in my staff that 'hey we are part of the community we need to cover the community like any real newspaper,' " Warren said. "I try not make it a big deal."

Fall 2009, reports