Student Newspapers + Greek Life

Every student newspaper on a college campus with Greek organizations will inevitably report on the lettered leagues. But it’s not always smooth sailing. We all know the stereotypes: Greeks will argue that they’ve been demonized by the media at large as nothing more than dangerous troublemakers responsible for everything wrong with the college social scene, the media will argue that they’ve been stigmatized by Greek life as nothing more than sharks looking to overturn all manner of Grecian scandal and sensation, and both sides, of course, will reject those accusations.

Yet, with around 9 million Greek students on over 3,000 college campuses, it remains crucial for student newspapers to overcome the stigmatization and accusation on both sides and report on the activities of Greek organizations both fairly and ethically. Journalists, here are three things to keep in mind when chasing Greek life-related stories:

1) Focus on what happened

As a journalist, your number one goal is to report a story as objectively as possible. There are no special, different rules when writing stories involving Greek life; journalistic ethics and professionalism apply equally here. And regardless of whether they respond, it’s important to reach out to those directly involved in the story.

When it came out that a member of a fraternity at the University of Maryland sent an email containing racist and sexist language, the staff at The Diamondback reached out to the fraternity and the Interfraternity Council for comment. The series of coverage that followed was angled toward the tangible events that happened as the story unfolded: a protest, a statement from the VP of Student Affairs, a student forum. Any editorializing was left, of course, to an editorial, which condemned the email, called sororities and fraternities to accountability and defended the reporting of “disturbing” trends within Greek life:

“…the pattern of fraternity and sorority scandals is disturbing, and we expect those organizations to police themselves. That means holding members accountable for their actions, not keeping a racist, sexist email secret for more than a year. Scandals seem very common now, but as with sexual assault, that could just be due to better reporting of misbehavior — and reporting is a good thing.” (original)

The Diamondback covered this Greek life scandal fairly and ethically, focusing on the events. Simultaneously, The Diamondback took a stronger stance on the issue by using the voice of its editorial board rather than fusing it with news articles.

However, focusing on what happened alone isn’t enough to ensure fairness in your coverage of Greek life. Too often, as The Diamondback’s 2016–17 editor-in-chief Danielle Ohl noted, “We usually only cover [Greek life] when something bad happens… Greek life really isn’t news unless something emergent happens.” A lot of things happen in Greek life, good and bad; so, how do you know whether a particular story is worth covering at all?

2) Report on the newsworthy

The very act of covering a story sends a message that the event is newsworthy, which can lead to a problem not of biased reporting but of biased coverage. “The perception is that we only pay attention to [Greek organizations] when they do something wrong, which isn’t true, but it looks true, because that’s the thing that we actually focus in more on,” said Cody Boteler, 2016–17 editor-in-chief of The Towson Towerlight.

The number one rule to follow when covering Greek life, as with all stories, is whether the story will appeal to your audience; “Do our readers want to hear about this?” While this sounds like it could verge on sensationalism, it’s not much different than determining the newsworthiness and the angle of any story. As Michelle Pitcher at The Daily Californian said, she would cover the loss of a group charter whether it was happening to a Greek organization or the Model UN.

A story could be newsworthy because it’s adorable (like this story about a sorority hosting a fall festival at an elementary school, from The JMU Breeze), because it’s unique (like this crime story about a fraternity member illegally owning an alligator skin, from The Florida Alligator), or because it spurred an important discussion (like the multi-part story about the dismissal of a fraternity member over a racist, sexist email, from The Diamondback). Sometimes, the answer is less obvious, but it becomes easier through careful conversation among staff. You’ll know it’s sensationalism if your sole underlying reason for covering a story is to defame a person or an organization, and you’ll know it’s not newsworthy when the event happens regularly or annually.

Of course, once it’s decided that a story is newsworthy and the angle is worked out, it’s all of no use if no one will provide you information. How are student media organizations to go about assuaging Greek organizations’ fears of being ‘demonized’?

3) Make clear you’re not out to get them — or anyone

Like working with members of the administration, it’s important to be kind and professional when interviewing members of Greek life for stories. Otherwise, you create barriers that will make it more difficult to get interviews, quotes and information. Keeping an amicable relationship and formal communication line open with Greek organizations, particularly with members of the IFC and Panhellenic Council, is key to ensuring that they feel they are being treated fairly by the student newspaper.

When reaching out to Greek organizations for interviews over potentially controversial issues, emphasize that the newspaper wants to get their side of the story, that it seeks to write the most comprehensive and balanced story about the issue. Use language that demonstrates professionalism and goodwill and avoids mushiness and self-deprecation. It’s important not to be too forgiving; as student journalists, you should never lose sight of your mission and role on campus. You must strike a balance between friendliness and duty, and emphasize to members of fraternities and sororities that the news does not exist to make judgment calls. Your organization will be respected more for sticking to its principles.

Additionally, having Greek members of newspaper staff can be a good point of connection, though many editors prefer a balance. In The Alligator’s case, Greeks have a lot of sway in UF’s student government, and in the past had the power to appoint staff to the newspaper; therefore, 2016 summer editor Giuseppe Sabella makes sure to recruit plenty of unaffiliated staff members. Editorial-wise, giving space to Greek members can also improve ties. At Colorado School of Mines, some sorority members have requested a weekly feature to emphasize their philanthropy and positive impacts, encouraging people not to be judgmental.

As a member of a sorority, Robyn Smith compartmentalizes her interests when it comes to covering Greek life. Not a believer in the “stigma of sensationalism” Greeks generally hold towards the media, her personal advice for covering Greek life is, “Do not hold back.”

“They just need to understand that we’re not out to get them, we’re out to get the story,” said Smith. “What really matters is what happened.”

What’s your organization’s philosophy about Greek life coverage? What Greek life-related stories are you proud of? Is it a conflict of interest to assign Greek staff members to stories about Greek life? Check out flyteboard to join the discussion.