College newspaper in the rough

Back in the Stone Age, when student journalists still cut out headlines with X-Acto knives and pasted chemically drenched text to layout sheets with hot wax, I edited my campus newspaper. In my early 20s at the time, I felt reasonably confident that I knew everything there was to know about journalism.

That's why, of course, that I approved a front-page photo one time of a student blood drive. But for some reason, a few readers (OK, a whole lot of readers) did not approve of the close-up shot of the needle going in a donor's arm.

Another time, a colleague (now a veteran city beat writer at The Oklahoman) reported on the arrest of a student leader on a rape complaint. We decided to identify the complaining party — the alleged victim — as well as the person arrested. We argued in print that granting rape victims anonymity contributed to the stigma of the crime.

That was 20-plus years ago.

Alas, I mention all of the above as full disclosure because I am about to question the journalistic sanity of the fine folks at The Daily O'Collegian, the student newspaper at Oklahoma State University. This week, that paper ran a glowing front-page story about a new strip club.

The top of the story:

Jerry and Amber Elledge have made bare breasts their business.

As husband and wife, the two own the Blue Diamond Cabaret, a strip club, at 7320 E. Sixth St.

The club opened Jan. 13, less than a month after the Doll House closed.

Jerry, who has worked in adult entertainment for 15 years, said his passion for his work started when he was an Oklahoma State University student.

"I went to my first topless club at 21, and I never really left," Jerry said.

As riveting as that lede is, it's the headline that the paper, um, stripped across the top of the story that's generating discussion:

DIAMOND IN THE MUFF

I learned about the brouhaha from my friend Kenna Griffin, an Oklahoma City University journalism professor and a former metro desk colleague of mine at The Oklahoman. In a blog post titled "Student Newspaper Pushes Boundaries," Griffin opined:

While I’m not offended by the headline, it seems this is a good time to practice the “just because you can doesn’t mean you should” standard of journalism ethics.

The O’Colly’s editors should have considered the mass of their newspaper readership, which goes beyond the student body. They also should have considered how the headline might impact people’s views of the legitimacy of their publication. As one newspaper adviser said in an email during the discussion:

“I believe a rule of thumb for the editors to measure the acceptability of a headline is to determine if it wants to be a tabloid or a credible newspaper. ‘What would the New York Times do?’ versus ‘What would the National Enquirer or a similar publication do?’"

One thing is for certain. The O’Colly got people’s attention.

My reaction is less subtle: It's crappy journalism.

The sensationalism screams for attention. But where's the healthy dose of journalistic skepticism?

Is there no source who might discuss the potential negative side of a business selling women's bodies? Is there no leader who might weigh in on whether this is the kind of establishment the community needs? Is there no one at the sheriff's department who might respond to the story's claim that the new-and-improved strip club has brought a higher level of (bare-breast-loving) clientele?

Again, we're talking about student journalists. They're still learning (hopefully) and may be unfamiliar with GetReligion ghosts. But this kind of performance does little to inspire confidence in the future of the profession.

Then again, look who's talking.

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