Media sensationalism ruined the truth about SAE
Everyone on this campus has heard of the Sigma Alpha Epsilon racial slur incident in Bear’s Den Tuesday night by now. The scandal has dominated student conversations and Student Life headlines for the past week, and everyone on campus seems to have an opinion on what really happened and what should be done. Major news outlets such as The Huffington Post were quick to share their opinions with the world and turn an isolated incident into a national scandal. With all of the constant conversation and absurd rumors, it very well may be impossible for the University to ever determine the truth of what actually happened. Sensationalist journalism and poor fact checking have robbed the students involved and the Wash. U. community as a whole of the opportunity to tell the truth and have a constructive dialogue.
As a whole, the Internet has been great for journalism—it has brought people’s access to information to unprecedented levels. However, the Internet has created two trends in media that can lead to stories being blown completely out of proportion. The increasing speed of information necessitates that journalists put out articles as quickly as possible when major events and scandals occur in order to remain relevant. This speed of publishing unfortunately sometimes comes at the expense of fact checking. The Internet has also led to an explosion in the volume of news media sources—instead of a paper in each city and a few national news networks, we have thousands of blogs and online journals. The sheer amount of articles about any given event drives journalists to sensationalize stories in order to compete. These two trends—rapid production of articles and sensationalist headlines—came together to turn the SAE racial slur incident into a complex monster that no one at Wash. U. was able to handle.
We at StudLife first put out an article on SAE at 1:45 p.m. on Wednesday. At 2:16 p.m., Sharon Stahl (vice chancellor for students) sent out an email to the student body to make everyone aware of the situation. Several hours later, BroBible, a popular website devoted to the college bro life style, published a piece on the incident that cited five sources—the original StudLife article, an anonymous tipster from Wash. U., Stahl’s email, a thread in the Wash. U. Class of 2015 Facebook group and a thread on the Wash. U. Confessions Facebook page. Things started to get really out of hand when, at 4:38 p.m., The Huffington Post reprinted the BroBible article verbatim. Since the article popped up on The Huffington Post, several other national and regional publications have put out pieces on the incident. The national press has put the Wash. U. administration in a pretty awkward situation—they have to act decisively or risk national backlash.
The fact that a supposedly reputable national publication such as The Huffington Post would publish an article relying mostly on Facebook posts for information—reprinted from a blog that writes articles like “How DTF Are Girls When Visiting Other Colleges?” and “To Me, If It’s Not Unprotected, It’s Not Sex”—without actually speaking directly to anyone involved in the incident is absurd. The Huffington Post article has robbed the pledges and victims involved in the incident of the chance to tell their story to an unbiased audience and forced the administration to act quickly before learning all of the facts. I’m not trying to trivialize what happened—there should be no space at Wash. U. for racial harassment of any kind. I’m not qualified to write more on this incident because everything I know is from secondhand accounts and rumors. I don’t know what happened because I wasn’t there—but neither was Brandon Wenerd of BroBible or anyone from The Huffington Post.