Student journalists work to repair damage from costly reporting errors
Libel lawsuits against student newspapers are relatively uncommon, but in recent months, mistakes in reporting have costs student editors and advisers headaches and even their jobs.
It sounded like a scene from a Todd Phillips film or a glimpse into the Prohibition era: Students were said to be seen dumping cases of Natural Light into residence hall trashcans; squeezing bags of Franzia into community bathroom sinks; and hiding rogue liquor bottles lying around their campus housing.
The panicked action by students on the University of Virginia campus was the result of an April 8 tweet from The Cavalier Daily, the school’s student newspaper, which warned students about incoming reports of a dorm raid by the state’s department of Alcohol Beverage Control. The news was false.
From football player Manti Te’o’s “girlfriend” fiasco to the confused reports as to the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooter’s name to false reports during the Boston Marathon bombings, media outlets — including student-run publications — have earned their share of corrections this year, notes Christine DiGangi, a communications coordinator for the Society of Professional Journalists.
Some mistakes were more severe than others, she said, but any error can yield unintended consequences for the publication at fault. The Cavalier Daily took a minor blow to its credibility that day, as students and other media buzzed about the incident. Elsewhere, reporting errors among campus publications have led to the firing of advisers and even legal action.
For this reason, it’s important to know how to remedy an error as soon as it’s realized, said DiGangi, who spoke from her professional media experience and not on behalf of SPJ.
In the case of The Cavalier Daily, the reported dorm search was traced to a student prank, which the newspaper later detailed. A student had circulated a SnapChat photo of a friend outside of the campus police station with a caption about the “raid.” In reality, the pictured student was handling a parking ticket.
Kaz Komolafe, the Cavalier’s editor-in-chief, said the newspaper staff began hearing about the raid from students and from resident advisers. After talking to members of the residential life staff, she said, the newspaper decided to tweet the alert, which read, “BREAKING: Reports of randomized dorm searches coming in.”
The initial tweet was retweeted 20 times, not including the retweets of those retweets, and the hash tag #UVAdormsearch began littering campus Twitter feeds. Komolafe, a rising senior studying politics, said it wasn’t until the staff called the state’s Alcoholic Beverage Control agency and the campus police that they found the reports to be false.
“At that point, we knew it was important to find out what had happened,” she said. They updated students and reported via Twitter as they found out more details, and eventually, the source of the rumor.
Because the error was broadcast only through Twitter, Komolafe said, the newspaper decided to write a story about the hoax and its fallout instead of a correction. She said the campus community was forgiving of the error.
“This was a situation where reliable people were verifying facts, and it turned out they weren’t right,” she said. “These things happen, and it’s not the end of the world. You just have to come back with the truth as soon as you can.”
But often mistakes are not as forgiven, said Amy Lecza, the former editor-in-chief of The Oracle newspaper at Oral Roberts University, who said her adviser resigned after the newspaper incorrectly named who had been tapped to serve as the university’s new president.
After receiving the OK from their advisers, editors at The Oracle published the name of the candidate they expected to be announced as the university’s new president that day in an online article, Lecza said. To much surprise, the information was wrong.
“We had heard the new president would be announced at the Board of Trustees meeting, and we tried to get it first,” she said. “The staff and the advisers had reliable tips, so we ran it online.”
A few minutes later, she said, the newspaper received a call from the media relations department to take the article down. The board didn’t announce the president that day, and the candidate the newspaper had named was not the finalist in the end, she said.
Immediately following the mistake, the newspaper’s adviser, Kevin Armstrong, resigned. In a statement provided to The Tulsa World, Armstrong said he was leaving “out of respect for the university that I will always love and for my family’s well-being.”
Lecza, who graduated in May in convergence journalism, said his resignation came as a shock to the staff, as Armstrong was “well-respected and loved,” and many of the students, including her, still don’t know what exactly prompted his leave.
“He did resign,” she said. “Now, whether he was asked to or he just thought that was the right thing to do, I don’t know.”
Armstrong’s departure further complicated an already chaotic situation, she said. The Oracle, a bi-weekly newspaper, addressed neither incident in print, she said, because of the “sensitivity.” Instead, the staff “reached out to the sources we contacted personally to say sorry for the confusion” because it didn’t want to “lose trust and the staff felt bad.”
At the time, publishing the name based on the paper’s sources “seemed like the right thing to do,” Lecza said. But looking back, she wished the staff would have waited to try to break the news.
A similar incident occurred at Florida A&M University, but in addition to its adviser being removed, the student newspaper there had its publication schedule halted, and all of its staff members were forced to reapply for their posts following a reporting error that resulted in a libel lawsuit.
In December, The Famuan was served with the suit over an article it published after the hazing death of FAMU drum major Robert Champion. The article about the incident, which ran one year prior, incorrectly stated that Keon Hollis, another member of the marching band, had been suspended in relation to Champion’s death. No disciplinary action had ever been taken against Hollis. The Famuan ran a correction in print in February 2012, and the article was ultimately removed from the newspaper’s website.
Following the notice of the libel suit, Famuan adviser Andrew Skerritt resigned because of a “personnel issue.” Ann Kimbrough, dean of the School of Journalism and Graphic Communication, told the Student Press Law Center in January that Skerritt’s departure had nothing to do with the lawsuit and that the timing was “just a coincidence.”
But that same month, Kimbrough also announced she would suspend the newspaper’s publishing and require all of its staff members to reapply to their positions. Although some of the newspaper’s staff were reinstated, and a new adviser was named, then-editor in chief Karl Etters was not rehired.
“The short answer is I didn’t fit into the vision of the paper,” Etters told SPLC in January.
The Famuan’s former and current editors, managing editors and advisers did not respond to multiple interview requests.
Thomas Julin, a First Amendment attorney for Hunton & Williams who has represented student newspapers in court, said if the suit at FAMU is carried out, it will be a pretty rare occurrence among college newspapers. He said lawsuits are often threatened as a result of misreporting by student publications, but they are rarely brought to trial.
According to the SPLC’s archives, relatively few libel cases involving student journalists have made it to court, though there have been some scares. Most recently, in January a federal magistrate dismissed as frivolous a libel lawsuit filed against two student journalists from St. Michael’s College by a presidential hopeful. Last summer, a Canadian hockey team filed a lawsuit against The Michigan Daily for erroneous reports that accused the team of having offered money to a University of Michigan-bound player; the lawsuit was later withdrawn after the paper published a clarification.
Daxton “Chip” Stewart, a media law professor at Texas Christian University, said issues are usually resolved by finding the root of the error, talking with the person claiming they were defamed and printing a correction or retraction.
“When you know you’ve made a mistake, apologize,” Stewart said. “That often mitigates the damages and reduces the chances of a lawsuit.”
But only do so after listening to the complaint and assessing it, Julin added. He said students shouldn’t act immediately, especially in cases when there is question of whether a correction is needed. In that case, he said, students should seek advice from an adviser or media law professional.
“They should focus their attention on their rights and the rights of the person claiming an error,” Julin said. “Threats of libel are part of the job, and you need to learn the rules of the road.”
In the end, they said, students need to take steps to try to prevent any error.
“The best advice I can give is: Be a journalist,” Stewart said. “Don’t trust one source. Verify everything. Double check and triple check.”
And never rush, DiGangi said. In today’s 24-hour news cycle, she said, there is a pressure to be the first to break the news. If that’s the concern, an outlet should say they are aware of an incident and that they are working to get more information.
“There’s no shame there,” she said. “It’s about getting it right, not first.”
If an error does occur, DiGangi offered a few personal tips. First, she said, the journalist must keep calm and review the issue to find out what is wrong. She said it should be addressed quickly, but not hastily, as there should never be a correction to a correction.
Second, she said, an outlet should never delete a tweet or a story, as “nothing is ever really gone.” Instead, an outlet should broadcast its clarification as much as the original news to make sure it’s known. An organization can look at who has retweeted the incorrect statement, for example, and tag the more influential pick-ups in the correction.
“And last, know that you’re going to make mistakes,” DiGangi said. “Some things get messed up. Perfection is an ideal. Carry yourself with professionalism and reflect on the experience.”
By Sydni Dunn, SPLC staff writer.
reports, Spring 2013