A 19-Year-Old, A Racist Tweet And A Front-Page Shaming

Penn State’s student newspaper, The Daily Collegian, ran a front-page story on Friday about a student who sent a racially incendiary tweet. 

Ashley Lytle, a 19-year-old student, tweeted:

Ashley Lytle Tweet

That’s obviously an inappropriate and offensive tweet—one that I have no intent of defending. She deserves to be criticized for sending it. 

But instead of focusing on my usual angle of media training, I’d rather focus on the sticky question of journalistic responsibility.

When writing about a 19-year-old college student who’s not a public figure (she’s not a student leader or high-profile college athlete), there must be some degree of proportionality. I have to imagine that many other Penn State students—there are more than 39,000 undergraduates at University Park—have also sent offensive tweets or said similarly offensive things. Is the new standard for the Collegian to shame everyone who does on its front page? And if not, is their cherry picking—which will mark Ms. Lytle as a racist for much of her college life—appropriate? 

In this case, the front page placement seems irresponsible given the thinness of the news story. (You can read the full article here, which doesn’t say much other than: Student sends bad tweet. Some people mad.) If there were mass protests on campus from offended students, I’d understand the front-page coverage. Same if the administration was considering kicking her out of the school or if the article served as more of an in-depth look at the ill effects of social media on campus. 

None of that was the case here.

Yes, this story may have been worthy of mention in the paper. But it would have been more responsible to cover the story on an inside page, which would have served the dual purpose of covering the story while giving it proportional coverage. 

Regardless, this story, like so many others, underscores the need for social media training. Some colleges and universities are offering that to students—particularly for student-athletes—but in a world in which a single tweet can destroy a person’s reputation, it makes sense to arm every student with the information they need to make smarter choices. (Chris Syme’s excellent book “Practice Safe Social” is a great place to start.)

For her part, Ms. Lytle has apologized.

UPDATE: September 8, 2013, 2:45 P.M.

I received an email from Brittany Horn, the Editor-in-Chief of The Daily Collegian, explaining her paper’s decision to cover this story. Due to the length of her response, I’ve posted it, in its entirely, to the comments section below. I encourage you to read her letter in full. You’ll also find my response to her email beneath her comment.

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A grateful hat tip to @ProfNichols.