Protest and apology after Daily Beacon story

A student newspaper’s coverage of an accident brings complaints of racism, sexism and insensitivity from the college community.

By Robin Hughes, editor

Author bio information is from the time of article submission and may not be current.

Source: FineLine: The Newsletter On Journalism Ethics, vol. 3, no. 5 (May 1991), p. 6.

This case was produced for FineLine, a publication of Billy Goat Strut Publishing, 600 East Main Street, Louisville, Kentucky 40202. Reprinted with the permission of Billy Goat Strut Publishing. This case may be reproduced for classroom and research purposes. Publication of this case in electronic or printed form requires written permission from the publisher and Indiana University. An exception is granted for use in readers designed for specific academic courses.

 

A story and photograph in The Daily Beacon, the University of Tennessee student newspaper, has prompted an apology from the UT Publications Board after the paper’s editor declined to apologize. The apology, made in a large paid ad in the Beacon, followed charges that the story was racist and sexist and that the photo, showing accident victim Leslie Williams in the street, was insensitive.

Williams later died from the injuries suffered when she was hit by a car while crossing the street. The driver was arrested on DUI charges.

Friends of the victim were offended by the Beacon’s description of Williams as a “20-year-old black wearing tight black pants and a black top.” The story also quoted an eyewitness saying he had seen a “chick . . . flying through the air.”

After the story and photo appeared, about 100 UT students staged a protest march. The demonstrators called for an apology from The Daily Beacon and for the resignation of student editor Clint Brewer. Brewer said he wouldn’t resign, nor would he apologize, because he “didn’t do anything wrong.”

“People construed the description of her clothing as sexist but it wasn’t meant to be,” Brewer said. “When a pedestrian wearing dark clothing is jaywalking at night, it is relevant to the reconstruction of the accident scene.”

Brewer also defended the eyewitness account as “establishing the validity of the witness because he could identify the victim as a woman.”

“We had the eyewitness quote, why paraphrase?” Brewer said. “We didn’t say ‘chick,’ he said ‘chick.’”

The Daily Beacon ran editorials explaining the motives behind these descriptions and the use of the photograph. The photo was not to “dehumanize” the victim, the editorial said, but to humanize the tragedy. Another editorial deplored the problem of drunken driving and the careless street-crossing habits of students.

Herb Howard, acting dean of the College of Communications and chair of the Publications Board, said that he’s sure the Beacon staff was “well-intentioned.” Still, the board believed that an apology was warranted “not for the coverage, but the effect of the coverage.”

“The picture and some of the words used in the article tended to be offensive and just added to the grief that the family and friends of this young woman were suffering,” Howard said.