Because college newspapers, run by students, are increasingly improving their online presence, professional reputations have become increasingly at risk. The naiveté of student journalists, lead by Editors in one-year terms lacking an established ethics code, in combination with the vulnerability of their unsuspecting classmates, is a threatening mixture, as college newspapers cultivate their Web presence.
The Chronicle of Higher Education reported in 2009 that college newspapers are uploading old print stories into their online archives, and letters and stories written by or about students in the 70s and 80s are coming up in Google searches on professionals who previously weren’t so publicly connected to their pasts.
Misdemeanors that would otherwise be expunged and wiped from record, letters-to-the-editor with regrettable stances and the unknowing mistakes of students in positions of leadership are published online and forever trapped in Google.
“If a potential employer decides to search my name in Google, their takeaway…if they didn’t read deep into the article to weed out the ridiculousness of the circumstances…takeaway would bring up a red flag,” said Matt Wallace, a senior at Ohio University. “And probably bar me from any further consideration right there.”
During Wallace’s run for president of Ohio University’s student government last year, the partying habits of both candidates were brought up in debate and publicized in the student-run newspaper, The Post.
“The biggest absurd instance of defamation was when one of [the opposing party’s] friends wrote a letter to The Post right after I signed a girl’s butt cheek at Palmerfest, and that talked about me being a sexist pig and me being literally, and I quote, ‘a danger to all women on campus,’” Wallace said. “The letter to the editor of The Post is never going to disappear from cyberspace. There could be some pretty real consequences.”
Students elected into student government are especially scrutinized, their scholarships paid for by students. This is evidenced by The Independent Collegian’s coverage at The University of Toledo, including a president hacking into the election website before votes were final and another president charged for disorderly conduct and public intoxication.
Current president Matt Rubin is especially careful after witnessing previous presidents’ reputations tarnished publicly.
“I’m extremely careful. I don’t want to do anything to land my name in the paper. They look for students messing up if you’re in a leadership position,” he said.
College newspapers, though, each have different ethical standards. At Marquette University’s The Marquette Tribune, Editor-In-Chief Matthew Reddin said he would “certainly not” publish the names of underage students in connection to a misdemeanor in order to preserve MU’s reputation as a Catholic institution.
At the University of Florida, all crime, from public intoxication to fake ID busts, is fair game at The Independent Florida Alligator.
“We look for those,” said The Alligator’s Metro Editor, Alex Orlando.
“We’re independent; we take no responsibility for our school’s reputation whatsoever. I could care less. If students are acting like jackasses, then we’re going to write about it.”
Taylor Wolken, the Opinion Editor at Texas A&M’s student-run newspaper, The Battalion, avoids publishing students underage drinking busts or expungeable drug offenses as well as students angry and reckless letters to the editor. Wolken said he filters the letters for the sake of the university as well as the student writing in.
“We like to give the student body the opportunity to write particularly on hot-button issues whether it’s abortion or gay marriage or some of those things that tend to light up people’s passions. When it’s just angry and there’s no point and there’s no facts…that’s something that we don’t want to do, so we’re protecting the school’s reputation and the individual’s reputation with some [illegitimate] statement with their name attached to it,” Wolken said.
But still, Wolken has received requests from graduates wanting their controversial letters to the editor taken down from the website.
“And no, we don’t take any of our content down. It’s a rough situation if you didn’t consider future prospects,” he said.
Andrew Burnette was a freshman and president of the Honor Council at OU when he was cited for underage drinking in his residence hall and the story later published in The Post. Since then, he says he has attempted to flood the newspaper with comments in order to push down the possibility of that story being the first to come up in connection with his name on Google.
“It’s not a story that many people can find, since my name has been in so many articles that it’s flooded,” he said.
That strategy of flooding the internet is recommended by career coaches Dawn Bugni and Laura Labovich. Labovich, Job Search Makeover Coach with Aspire! Empower! Career Strategy Group, said if online information is bad, the candidate should do what she calls a “Reputation Rescue,” by creating flattering profiles on appropriate high-authority websites- websites Google will list first in a search, such as LinkedIn and YouTube.
Bugni, Owner of The Write Solution, suggests commenting on books on Amazon appropriate to the candidate’s field.
“If you want to work as an architect, start reading architecture books and writing Amazon book reviews. Amazon has incredible SEO and incredible Google use. If you’re writing thoughtful things, you’re driving the negative down, and presenting a very positive, professional face,” she said.
Bugni also said it is important, in an interview, to bring up the subject and casually dismiss it before the employer finds the information and is able to make judgment.
“If you dismiss it, chances are they’ll look at the 97 million other things you’ve done well,” Bugni said. “I mean, come on, I went to college. I don’t want Facebook to know what I did in college.”
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