March 4, 2014

There’s been a relatively slow burn on the story of a female Duke University freshman outed as a porn star by a frat boy during rush.

The rumor first circulated through Duke’s campus in late January, after a frat boy discovered one of his classmates in a porn video, promised to keep her secret and then outed her during a rush party. On Valentine’s Day, the student newspaper published a smart, in-depth story on the woman, including lengthy answers to an interviewer’s questions. The paper used a pseudonym, Lauren, to identify her.

In the ensuing two weeks, anonymous participants on sites like CollegiateACB  revealed the woman’s name, her hometown, her dad’s profession and his work telephone number.

In the midst of all that, she wrote a first-person piece, under a pseudonym, for XOJane that made her critics all the more irate. And then last week the New York Daily News, The Washington Post and The (Raleigh, N.C.) News & Observer posted stories, all with a slightly different take.

Put the name Duke, a prestigious university with a reputation as the basis for the novel “I Am Charlotte Simmons,” in a headline with porn star, and you have the makings of Internet gold, as well as a PR nightmare for the school, as The News & Observer pointed out.

That’s probably why New York Magazine decided that Duke Freshman Porn Star merited an all-caps treatment.

It is also another great case study to explore the well-documented trend of the Internet mobs trying to silence women. While her critics were loud and destructive, advocating that people call her dad to let him know his daughter is a porn star, no one suggested a phone campaign to inform the mother of the frat boy who outed her that her son is watching porn.

So what is this narrative really about? Is it about impossible cost of college? Or is it about the juxtaposition of a smart young woman, an elite university and a dark way to make money.

Or is it a story is about an 18-year-old testing out her ideas of independence, freedom and feminism, which she may come to regret. Or not, she may be right that this will be a solid litmus test for future grad schools/employers/significant others.

This is one of those stories where editors must identify a journalistic purpose and ensure the story fulfills that. Otherwise, it’s just an excuse to put the words “Duke porn star” in a headline, because it’ll get lots of clicks.

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Kelly McBride is a journalist, consultant and one of the country’s leading voices on media ethics and democracy. She is senior vice president and chair…
Kelly McBride

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