Top student media content that made news, went viral in 2013

Snowballs. Blackface. Sorority segregation. A mistaken sex offender. “Some good advice from a Jewish mother.” Pre-game trash talk. Australian indecency laws. And Meryl Streep.

These are some of the startlingly diverse elements entangled within student media content that made news and went viral in 2013.

Through my work with College Media Matters, a daily blog on the campus press affiliated with College Media Association (CMA), I observed a range of student reports, op-eds, letters to the editor, photos, videos, tweets, blog posts and special editions that achieved outsized levels of fame and infamy over the past year – for their quality, insensitivity, shock value or sexual content. I also witnessed a few responses to student journalism that inspired similarly gargantuan social and mainstream media storms – from pranks and shutdowns to protests and mass theft.

To that end, below is a highlight and lowlight reel of the 2013 college media circus. More specifically, it is a review of the year’s most viral student press creations, performers and sideshows – in 13 categories meant to be serious, silly and, literally, satirical.

Viral Video of the Year

Let’s begin near the end of 2013. A video posted in early December by the Emerald showing University of Oregon students flinging hundreds of snowballs has nabbed millions of views.

Captured by a student employee on the Emerald’s business side, the video offers an armchair look at rowdy UO student snowballers pelting passing cars with the white stuff. At certain points, they even stop the vehicles so they can toss and dump more snow their way.

Almost immediately, the roughly two-minute raw video – understatedly titled “Students Get Out of Hand During Friday’s Snowfall” – garnered major YouTube and Reddit exposure. It was also “replayed by media outlets around the globe,” accompanied by “so many requests from media outlets for the video that it was hard to keep up with them all,” wrote Emerald editor Sam Stites. And it spurred a university investigation and drew a few carefully worded statements from UO officials, including the head football coach (since some players were involved).

That is called mega-viral. Now duck.

Runner-Up: In early May, Emily Tolan, a senior at the time at Savannah College of Art & Design, put together a fascinating video detailing the social media response of the public, press, government and law enforcement to the Boston Marathon bombing. Since its posting by SCAD’s digital news outlet District, it has racked up tens of thousands of views, earned kudos as a Vimeo Staff Pick and received the “Best Viral Video” prize as part of the 2013 College Media Association Pinnacle Awards.

Viral News Story of the Year

In September, a special report in The Crimson White detailing eye-opening racial segregation within the University of Alabama Greek system caught fire on campus, online and in the press.

The CW story revealed that during the most recent rush period, advisers and alumni members of some UA sororities rejected otherwise qualified student recruits simply because of their skin color. Among those blocked: a black female student who sported “a 4.3 GPA in high school, was salutatorian of her graduating class and comes from a family with deep roots in local and state public service and a direct link to the University of Alabama.” According to the paper, her failure to be accepted was simply further proof Greek life is “still almost completely divided along racial lines.”

In a post for The Poynter Excellence Project, Kelly McBride rightly described the article by editors Abbey Crain and Matt Ford as “a remarkable piece of journalism.” As she wrote, “The impact was even more remarkable. Students and faculty protested. The college president, the governor and the U.S. Attorney General trained their sights on the rush process, and news media around the world took notice. The outcome: Several sororities reopened the rush process and invited four African-American women and two other women of color into their ranks.”

Runner-Up: In early October, Adam Ganucheau, editor-in-chief of The Daily Mississippian at the University of Mississippi, reported that students – including some Ole Miss football players – were so disruptive during a campus staging of a play about gay bullying that some student actors were crying while they performed. Upon the story’s posting, the DM website crashed several times from the surge in traffic – racking up roughly a half million hits in its first few days online. National media followed up with stories of their own. And university officials offered public apologies for the behavior revealed at the story’s heart.

Viral Op-Ed of the Year

In early November, a petition and “national controversy” swirled around a “booze-and-rape op-ed” run in the Southern Methodist University student newspaper.

In the piece, Daily Campus contributing writer Kirby Wiley argued greater attention must be paid to what she sees as a link between female student alcohol consumption and sexual assaults. As she argued, “The best way for women to prevent these assaults from happening to them is to never drink so much that they cannot control themselves or remember what happened the next day. If women quit putting themselves in situations where they appear vulnerable, it will be much less likely for men to try and take advantage of them.”

Upon its publication, a pair of SMU gender and sexual rights groups proclaimed the op-ed as nothing more than irresponsible victim blaming and female bashing. A Change.org petition launched by the groups implored the Daily Campus to “STOP publishing articles contributing to rape culture and misogyny in general.”

In a separate letter to the editor, two recent Daily Campus editors similarly criticized the piece for “plac[ing] the blame for sexual assaults on their victims. Needless to say, this is not an appropriate way to report on a serious problem affecting colleges around the country.”

As CNN reported at the time, the hubbub surrounding the op-ed vaulted it “beyond the Dallas campus and into the ongoing national debate over how much responsibility potential victims of sexual assault bear.”

The paper also ran a news report on the backlash, labeling it online with two hashtags: #DailyCampus and #controversy.

Viral Letter of the Year

In late March, The Daily Princetonian published a letter from Susan Patton, a Princeton University alumnae who is also the mother of a current Princeton student and a young Princeton graduate – both men. It very quickly triggered national media debate and such impassioned interest it may have temporarily crashed the Princetonian website.

Patton’s earnest missive urged female Princeton students to quickly find a suitable husband from among the university’s undergraduate male population. As she wrote, “For most of you, the cornerstone of your future and happiness will be inextricably linked to the man you marry, and you will never again have this concentration of men who are worthy of you. Here’s what nobody is telling you: Find a husband on campus before you graduate.”

The letter inspired a bevy of snarky and intense putdowns in the press – and tons of online comments – from those who found it generationally out of touch, socially elitist or anti-feminist. As The Wall Street Journal wrote cheekily about the reaction at the time, “A kerfuffle swept across the land, and it was a marvel of nature – at once purposeful and chaotic, a frenzied unity. As if one, every feminist of childbearing age in America (we exaggerate, but only slightly) simultaneously arched her back and let out a deafening hiss.”

This hiss combined with genuine interest in Patton and her pronouncements. During the first day the letter appeared online, Googlers searched for her name more than 100,000 times. A Princeton senior summarized the country’s focus at the time by stating, quite simply, “America was going nuts over Susan Patton’s letter.”

For her part, in a follow-up interview, Patton expressed surprise at the letter’s virality, while sticking to her guns about the advice it contains: “I’m astounded by the extreme reaction. Honestly, I just thought this was some good advice from a Jewish mother.”

Months later, she confirmed the advice, and the letter, would be adapted and expanded into a book set to be published by an imprint of Simon & Schuster.

Runner-Up: In early November, a letter to the editor in The Badger Herald at the University of Wisconsin-Madison written by student David Hookstead argued “‘rape culture’ does not exist.” It sparked endless “hate tweets,” more than 1,000 nasty online comments, a smattering of disgusted letters to the editor and a bloc of dismissive and derisive media reaction posts. City Pages in Minnesota summed things up most succinctly: “Hookstead’s victim-blaming column went over about as well as the Hindenburg over New Jersey.”

Viral Image of the Year

In August, an Australian campus newspaper’s attempt to “make a stance about body ownership” by running images of female students’ genitalia resulted in censorship and a press and social media maelstrom.

After staging very intimate photo shoots with willing young women, Honi Soit at the University of Sydney published uncensored, close-up images of 18 vaginas in a special front-page spread.

As editors explained in a Facebook post, “We are tired of having to attach anxiety to our vaginas. We are tired of vaginas being either artificially sexualized (see: porn) or stigmatized (see: censorship and airbrushing). We are tired of being pressured to be sexual, and then being shamed for being sexual. … The vagina should and can be depicted in a non-sexual way – it’s just another body part.”

The university did not concur. A school office that oversees the paper’s printing worried the photo collage ran afoul of national indecency laws (specifically 578C of the Australian NSW Crimes Act).

A compromised page was published with black bars blocking part of each image. But upon the issue’s distribution on campus “it was discovered the black bars were transparent and did little to cover the vaginas.” Administrators swooped in, carrying out a “dramatic recall” of all 4,000 copies of the issue.

National and international media coverage soon followed. The hashtag #vaginasoit spread fast on Twitter. Debates raged about the relative appropriateness of the photos and what happens “when pubic privates become public property,” said The Daily Telegraph.

Viral Special Issue of the Year

In late March, Central New Mexico Community College earned a spurt of bad press for administrators’ brief suspension of the student newspaper. The daylong shutdown occurred almost immediately after The CNM Chronicle published a special sex edition.

Hours after it premiered on campus, college officials effectively fired Chronicle staffers and ordered them to leave the campus newsroom. They also removed copies of the issue from newsstands and “even pried the issue out of students’ hands if they saw them reading it,” according to KOB4.

Initially, CNM officials said they censored the issue and shuttered the Chronicle short-term because the sexually explicit content was “offensive and not appropriate for the educational mission of CNM.” College President Katherine Winograd later explained they intervened due to concerns about a 17-year-old quoted in one of the pieces – even though the Chronicle confirmed the quote was given with the full knowledge and permission of the source and her parents and the Student Press Law Center said “there are no legal problems with including a minor.”

A day after the hubbub began, the college reinstated the Chronicle, but not without consequences. Along with professional press attention, The Daily Lobo at nearby University of New Mexico made news by publishing an issue with a black ‘X’ in place of almost all articles and photos – in protest of what it dubbed “a ruthless and authoritarian display of censorship.”

Roughly a month later, a letter to the editor in The Chronicle of Higher Education signed by nearly two dozen current and former CNMCC professors referred to the shutdown as a “seamy episode” in the school’s history.

Viral Satire of the Year

A spoof story about Meryl Streep run in a student newspaper’s April Fools’ edition suddenly picked up social media steam in August – and tricked some readers and journalists into thinking it was true.

The gist of the tall tale with long legs, published by The Quill at Canada’s Brandon University: Oscar-winning screen legend Streep was planning to take a break from acting and instead serve as a visiting instructor at Brandon.

While the story received little attention upon its initial posting, without warning, in mid-August, “people who failed to notice its publication date posted links to it on social media sites like Facebook and Twitter. … At least two national reporters based in Ottawa tweeted it out.”

Viral Twitter Hashtag of the Year

During a weekend in mid-November, University of Arizona senior Megan Coghlan suddenly morphed into #MeganCoghlanSucks. The derisive Twitter hashtag was one part of a fairly massive cyberbullying campaign carried out – more or less – by Washington State University football supporters.

On the day before Arizona and Washington State were set to meet in a conference football match-up, Coghlan wrote an in-your-face Yahoo! Sports blog post denouncing Washington State for sporting “no real traditions, nothing to define itself, no rich football history and a sad lack of identity.” The post appeared on a blog known for its “trash-talk pre-game series” in which supporters from schools whose football squads are about to square off trade barbs.

It is normally all in good fun. But this time around, according to a local news report, Coghlan’s taunting inspired “thousands of expletive emails, Facebook messages and tweets. … Even a hashtag was created: #MeganCoghlanSucks. Coghlan said she received threats and people telling her to kill herself.”

As The Pacific Northwest Inlander confirmed, “When the Cougs actually won, Coghlan became the designated target of WSU fans’ celebratory rage. Fans found her Twitter account, forcing her to make it private. They found her on Instagram. They posted the college newsroom phone numbers for her and the editor-in-chief. Within the state, #MeganCoghlanSucks was briefly trending on Twitter.”

Coghlan, co-sports editor of UA’s student newspaper The Daily Wildcat, said people called her “many derogatory female-based terms. … For one weekend, I was the least popular person on Twitter, according to Washington State University fans. Not Miley Cyrus, not Barack Obama or Taylor Swift, but me. … I am not ashamed of what I wrote. I am ashamed of the reaction. Trash-talk is a part of sports. Harassment, sexism and threats should not be.”

Viral Screw-Up of the Year

In March, Michael Todd, a city councilman in Oswego, N.Y., filed a lawsuit against the Oswego State University student newspaper for incorrectly referring to him as a registered sex offender.

Roughly a month before, a report ran in The Oswegonian about a fight over a law barring sex offenders and recent felons from driving local taxis. The piece featured Todd prominently as an official who supports the law, in part because he feels “passengers of taxis should not have to risk their safety when getting into a taxi.” Unfortunately, the Oswegonian article published in print and originally run online wrongly identified Todd as a sex offender himself, along with a few other errors.

According to Syracuse’s Post-Standard, Todd’s suit “alleges that the newspaper made a ‘false and defamatory statement’ causing Todd ‘financial loss, ridicule and public humiliation.’”

Oswegonian editor-in-chief Aimee Hirsch said after the mistaken story’s publication, “[T]his is a newspaper’s worst nightmare, especially for us since, as a student newspaper, one of our primary goals is learning and developing our skills for future careers in journalism. My newspaper staff and I have been sick with grief over this error, and feel terrible about what Todd and his family are going through because of it.”

Viral Shutdown of the Year

In January, near the start of spring semester, Florida A&M University officials temporarily suspended publication of The Famuan campus newspaper. They also removed the paper’s faculty adviser without much explanation. And they forced the student staff to reapply for their positions and “undergo training in media law and ethics . . . [and] more general journalism principles.”

These actions were announced roughly a month after a student filed a lawsuit against the Famuan alleging defamation. The suit contended the paper mishandled a portion of its reporting about the November 2011 hazing death of a FAMU music student, an incident that placed the university in a harsh, prolonged national spotlight.

Fighting back against the administrative intervention – one they described as “ungrounded and arbitrary” – some Famuan staffers launched a short-lived “rogue website.” Ink and Fangs – a reference to journalism and the school’s rattlesnake mascot – aimed to fill the student journalists’ “insatiable need to produce news and inform and communicate with the public and FAMU.” As the student in charge of Ink and Fangs told me soon after its launch, “You know, it’s a ‘no paper, no problem’ kind of deal.”

Meanwhile, a host of critics did see problems with the suddenness of the Famuan shutdown and the secrecy surrounding the adviser firing and student staff rehiring process. In rapid succession, the College Media Association, Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ) and Student Press Law Center (SPLC) expressed public concerns about what the latter organization called “a case of overkill that could not possibly hold up if challenged under the First Amendment.”

As SPLC Executive Director Frank LoMonte said at the time, “The very best possible way that you could characterize FAMU’s behavior, giving them the benefit of every doubt, is that they view their students with contempt. That’s the nicest possible thing you could say.”

Administrators have been tight-lipped about the situation overall, although they did say the removal of the Famuan adviser was not linked to the lawsuit.

Viral Fight of the Year

In October, a high-profile athletic protest at Grambling State University led to a controversial battle between a faculty adviser and two student editors at The Gramblinite campus newspaper.

As sports fans recall, Grambling State football players earned mega-media attention in the middle of the season for publicly criticizing the poor conditions of their practice facilities and rough-at-times away game road-trips. To show their collective dismay, they refused to play a game against a conference rival, forcing the team to forfeit.

While at first overshadowed by the football brouhaha, the Gramblinite newsroom dysfunction eventually became a sideshow all its own – leaving the university “[r]eeling from heightened media attention, angry alumni, protesting students and scrutiny from press freedom groups.”

Wanda Peters, a faculty adviser with the paper, pushed to fire one editor for his coverage of the protest saga and briefly suspended another for her participation in a related campus rally. During a last-minute session staged at the 2013 ACP/CMA National College Media Convention, the editors said Peters also censored a letter to the editor about the football mess submitted by Grambling State’s student government president.

Peters told Columbia Journalism Review, “I overstepped my bounds” in respect to her attempts to punish the editors. She said her efforts stemmed from what she saw as the students’ failure to follow the newspaper’s code of ethics regarding conflicts of interest and news-opinion separation.

In return, The Oklahoma Daily at the University of Oklahoma argued her actions were “lined with suspicion, censorship and moral injustice.” Student Press Law Center attorney advocate Adam Goldstein similarly said, “I’ve rarely encountered a school so outright committed to violating students’ rights. This is exactly what it was: government silencing dissent in the most heavy-handed, nauseating way possible.”

Viral Protest of the Year

In November, a column in the Binghamton University student newspaper defending the use of blackface during events such as Halloween spurred an organized protest outside the paper’s newsroom.

In the piece, Pipe Dream columnist Julianne Cuba criticized the commotion and media coverage surrounding actress Julianne Hough’s blackface costume. This past Halloween, Hough dressed as the popular black character “Crazy Eyes” from the Netflix show “Orange is the New Black,” in part by painting her face black.

According to Cuba, a BU senior, Hough’s face paint was purely an attempt to more accurately match up with the character she was portraying. As she argued, “Had Hough dressed as President Barack Obama and donned a mass-made mask, which of course is black like the president, nothing would have come of it. Had a black person dressed as the Pope and painted his face white, again, nothing this severe would have come of it. Our reaction to Hough’s costume is nothing short of racism itself.”

At Binghamton, the reaction to Cuba’s column was nothing short of combustible, leading to an event editors confirmed was “a turning point in Pipe Dream’s history.”

Along with a slew of angry online comments, a group of more than 50 students and faculty at one point gathered in protest outside the Pipe Dream newsroom. Some protestors declared the Pipe Dream ignorant and irresponsible for allowing the piece to run. As one BU student said about the opinion section, “It’s not a bathroom wall; we need an editorial policy.”

Viral Prank of the Year

This past spring, a media lecturer at Australia’s University of Sydney ordered his students to create and pitch fake news stories to Tharunka, the campus newspaper at the University of New South Wales. The Sydney students in the lecturer’s media politics course were even told to lie about their backgrounds in order to help secure publication for their faux pieces.

The project’s name: Prank Tharunka. Peter Chen, the lecturer, planned to count it as 25 percent of students’ final grades.

Unsurprisingly, the prank project angered the country’s Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance; an MEAA spokesperson called it, simply, “wrong and stupid.”

Tharunka editor Lily Ray also wrote at the time, “Memo to media studies lecturers and tutors anywhere on earth: Feel free to tell your students to write for Tharunka. We love getting contributions, we love being controversial, we love making people think and we love it that you love us. But let’s keep it real, can we?”

By comparison, the lecturer Chen did not fully agree with the criticism. As he argued about the assignment, “This is not a dangerous activity –  we’re not cutting people’s organs out of their stomachs.”

Yikes. Happy 2014.

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