Allegations of Ivy League hazing. Alice in Wonderland on LSD. A Biblical studies professor busted in a child predator sting. A student squirrel whisperer. A 280-pound black bear falling from a tree. And something called milking.
These buzzwords and teaser descriptions factor into a few of the many viral creations published or posted by college media over the past year. The student press was responsible for an especially high number of viral reports, columns, videos, photos, headlines, and tweets in 2012.
Some were deliberate attempts for clicks, shares, and attention. Others were scandals featuring student journalists at the center. And still others were quiet bits of content that became sudden sideshows within the Internet circus, for better and worse.
Collectively, their moments in the digital spotlight offer a fascinating foundation for a student press year in review — a glimpse at what was especially popular, controversial, funny, unexpected, and out of control. In that spirit, here is a chronological rundown of top college media moments and content that blew up online in 2012.
Never, in a Million Years
Near the start of the year, Onward State killed Joe Paterno, the night before he actually died. On a Saturday evening in late January, the online student news outlet at Penn State University reported Paterno — the school’s legendary football coach who had become increasingly ensnared within the Sandusky sex abuse scandal — had succumbed to lung cancer.
In a series of tweets and a story on its site, Onward State offered the first apparent confirmation of Paterno’s death. CBS Sports and other outlets worldwide quickly cited and linked to them. The media pick-ups were a sign of both the immense anticipation surrounding word of Paterno’s condition and Onward State’s social media prowess. (The outlet’s Facebook and Twitter followings are among the highest in college media.)
Unfortunately, the scoop was mistaken. Subsequent conflicting reports and statements from a family spokesman and one of Paterno’s sons spurred a retraction and apology. It also led to a ferocious, real-time digital drubbing from Happy Valley faithful, the general public, and the press. By night’s end, Onward State Managing Editor Devon Edwards had resigned.
As Edwards wrote at the time, “I never, in a million years, would have thought that Onward State would be cited by the national media, and today, I sincerely wish it never had been … To the Penn State community and to the Paterno family most of all, I could not be more sorry for the emotional anguish I am sure we caused. There are no excuses for what we did. We all make mistakes, but it’s impossible to brush off one of this magnitude.”
Paterno passed away the next morning.
Party at the End of the World
Soon after Onward State’s faux pas, a column by a Dartmouth University student earned national attention for its extremely candid glimpse at hazing. In late January, The Dartmouth student newspaper published a personal piece by senior Andrew Lohse outlining the many degrading acts he had allegedly endured in 2010 while pledging a fraternity at the Ivy League school.
In the column, headlined “Telling the Truth,” he wrote, “I was a member of a fraternity that asked pledges, in order to become a brother, to: swim in a kiddie pool full of vomit, urine, fecal matter, semen, and rotten food products; eat omelets made of vomit; chug cups of vinegar, which in one case caused a pledge to vomit blood; drink beers poured down fellow pledges’ ass cracks; and vomit on other pledges, among other abuses. Certainly, pledges could have refused these orders. However, under extreme peer pressure and the desire to ‘be a brother,’ most acquiesced.”
The frankness of the piece — and the misdeeds it describes occurring behind Ivy-covered walls — led to a bevy of rapid shares and shocked responses from online readers. It also triggered a ton of press coverage, including a prominent feature in Rolling Stone, and a book deal for Lohse.
The book’s working title: “Party at the End of the World.”
Bumper Sticker on a Ferrari
In late January and early February, a column in The Spectrum student newspaper at the University of Buffalo went massively viral due to its criticisms of women who get tattoos. Along with a rash of well-reasoned retorts, the piece prompted endless hate-filled rants and personal attacks aimed at its student writer.
In the column, Lisa Khoury, UB sophomore and Spectrum assistant news editor, argued women are beautiful without permanent body markings. She compared a tattoo on a woman to a “bumper sticker on a Ferrari” and degraded the practice among females as a sadly superficial way to score male attention.
In her words, “An elegant woman does not vandalize the temple she has been blessed with as her body. She appreciates it. She flaunts it. She’s not happy with it? She goes to the gym. She dresses it up in lavish, fun, trendy clothes, enjoying trips to the mall with her girlfriends. She accentuates her legs with high heels. She gets her nails done. She enjoys the finer things in life, all with the body she was blessed with. But marking it up with ink? That’s just not necessary.”
In response, readers worldwide pounced, a majority condemning Khoury and her perspectives. As she wrote at one point, “I woke up today and had 938 hate mails, 646 nasty Facebook comments, and dozens of mean-spirited tweets. I’m a 19-year-old college sophomore, I help run my family’s restaurant, I’m a writer and editor at my school’s newspaper, and a woman from Australia says I’m ‘sexist.’ A professor from the University of Illinois wonders about my mental stability. A man double my age is calling me ‘ugly.’ In the past 48 hours, authors, war veterans, mothers of small children have told me I’m ignorant, worthless, brainwashed, classless, disgusting, hypocritical, and judgmental.”
At around the same time as the tattoo hullaballoo, college memes were invading the Facebook streams of students at schools throughout the U.S., Canada, and parts of Europe. Specifically, students were racing to start meme-focused Facebook pages for their schools before someone else claimed them.
The pages were generally not affiliated with student media or other recognized campus groups. Instead, they were the efforts of individual students or small groups of friends who have no ambition other than sharing a laugh and getting their peers’ attention.
A rash of reports and social media chatter confirmed undergraduates’ online experiences were suddenly hovering between “meme madness” and full-blown “meme mania.” As University of Iowa student outlet The Hook Up noted, “It’s not often that such a phenomenon takes off running with such fury and so little impetus … Students are now meme-ing like they’ve never memed before.”
For example, in early February, a pair of University of Oregon freshmen launched a memes page dedicated to “images lampooning college life” at the Pac-12 school. It took off, within minutes, and continued to spread, non-stop. On its first day in action, the page roped in roughly 2,500 likes. On day two, University of Oregon Memes was on the front page of The Daily Emerald student newspaper.
The start of the related story succinctly summarized the phenomenon at-large, noting, “When University freshmen Jack Hunter and Darin Shelstad created a Facebook page late Wednesday night to share inside jokes, they never expected it would become so popular. But it did. Overnight. Literally.”
Rape, Murder & Prostitution Jokes
The student press April Fools’ editions were especially brutal this past year— both their content and the fallout surrounding some of their publications. The bloodiest receptions were reserved for The Daily Free Press at Boston University and The Maneater at the University of Missouri.
In early April, the editor in chief of the Daily Free Press was forced to resign following the distribution of a callous, poorly received satirical issue featuring drug use, sexual assault, and Disney characters. Spoof stories in the issue focused on Cinderella’s alleged involvement in a prostitution ring, BU frat brothers slipping Alice in Wonderland LSD, and the dwarfs from Snow White participating in a group rape of a female BU student.
Readers and outside media condemned the content for perpetuating a campus rape culture and mocking victims of sexual assault. As a Boston community news site story asked, “It’s just not April Fools’ Day without some Disney rape, murder, and prostitution jokes, eh?”
Soon after, both the editor in chief and managing editor of The Maneater resigned after publication of a similarly controversial April Fools’ issue named The Carpeteater. The issue contained a range of content that some readers deemed offensive to women and the LGBTQ community.
As a Mizzou student wrote in a letter to the editor signed by more than 200 students, alumni, and employees at the school, “[T]his edition offers overtly offensive language including sections entitled ‘Camp*ssy’ and ‘Whore ‘Um’… Derogatory profanity toward women isn’t funny. It isn’t satirical. It certainly isn’t journalism.”
The Famous Falling Bear
Late last spring semester, a student journalist’s photo of a tranquilized bear went viral — and almost spurred a lawsuit.
In April, Andrew Duann, a student photographer for The CU Independent, snapped an instantly iconic shot of a black bear falling from a tree near a University of Colorado residence hall village. The animal had been tranquilized by local wildlife officials and was subsequently taken into temporary custody for its own — and others’ — protection.
Duann’s photo of the creature almost immediately became a web sensation. As Denver’s Westword reported, “[W]ithin four hours or so [of its posting], it had become a Facebook and Twitter smash, as well as winding up on Gawker, Reddit, Yahoo, and more traditional news platforms such as CBS4, 7News, Fox 31, the Boulder Daily Camera and the Denver Post …The surge of traffic eventually crashed the Independent’s site.” The animal became known in some circles as “Boulder’s famous ‘falling bear.’”
And then came a post-viral twist: In the wake of the photo’s online success and its republishing by other news outlets, Duann briefly looked into legal action against his own paper. As Poynter’s MediaWire confirmed, Duann was “upset that the paper’s adviser … allowed publications around the world to reproduce the photo, asking most outlets only for it to be credited to Duann and the CU Independent.”
Duann considered the bear shot his personal copyrighted property, even though he was on the paper’s staff and apparently supplied it willingly for the story it accompanied. He ultimately did not file suit.
Days later, in the story’s saddest twist, the bear was killed after being hit by two cars on a highway outside Boulder, Colo.
Red and Dead
The most viral — and arguably the most significant — student press story in 2012 was the temporary mass resignation of The Red & Black staff at the University of Georgia. In mid-August, editors, reporters, photographers, and designers at the campus newspaper quit in protest over what they felt was an unacceptable level of editorial control being exerted by non-students.
Their concerns centered on the increased hiring of outside professionals and the accompanying “serious pressure” they were placing on content and everyday newsroom decisions. As an editor said in a statement announcing the staff’s resignation, “I felt like it was unethically turning into something that we were trained not to do, from grip and grin photos to not letting us do our own work. It wasn’t our paper anymore.”
In response, the students started a separate news site of their own with an unsubtle symbolic name, Red and Dead. Their efforts received national attention and thousands of devotees on Facebook and Twitter. Many championed them as student press heroes. The paper’s publisher said he thought their resignation was an overreaction.
Less than a week after the protests began, the students and the Red & Black board of directors reached an agreement to resume R&B production. The staff was also reinstated, on the grounds “that students have editorial control over the contents of our publications with no prior review.”
(Read more about the Red & Black on this MediaShift story by Ryan Frank.)
Bryan College is Not Penn State
In late September, the editor in chief of The Bryan College Triangle at Tennessee’s Bryan College self-published a controversial story about a former professor charged with sex crimes involving a minor. Alex Green wrote, printed, and distributed the article on his own four days after Bryan’s president told him it could not be run in the paper.
The article outlines the real reason behind the sudden, quiet resignation of a Biblical studies professor at the Christian school: his arrest over the summer in an FBI sting while attempting to meet a minor at a Georgia gas station. Charges include “attempted aggravated child molestation and child sexual exploitation.” When Green initially inquired about the professor’s departure, the school told him he was leaving “to pursue other opportunities.”
In an editor’s note included in the self-published issue, headlined “Why It’s Important,” Green wrote, “Bryan College is not Penn State. Had one individual in the Penn State program stepped up and revealed the truth about the actions of Jerry Sandusky, there would have been no fallout 14 years later. Joe Paterno could have died a hero. Instead, he died a goat. Penn State could have been praised. Instead, they are broken … Printing this story will not cause a Penn State situation for Bryan. I believe it will prevent one.”
The Chattanooga Times Free Press confirmed at the time “reporters and editors around the country [are] talking about the fifth-year senior’s decision to publish against the administration’s wishes.” A student at another Tennessee Christian school wrote to Green on his Facebook wall, “You are an inspiration.”
In a public statement issued the day after Green distributed the article, the Bryan College president said his spiking of the story “may have been a mistake.” In his words, “Our intent was to look at the situation as Christians and do what was right. As humans, we are fallible. What we can do is learn from our mistakes.”
The Squirrel Whisperer
In early October, Onward State posted a profile of Mary Krupa, a Penn State University freshman “best known for playing with squirrels, while also donning them with tiny-squirrel sized hats.” The student news site dubbed Krupa nothing less than a full-blown “squirrel whisperer.”
In the post, Krupa is described with “squirrels … climbing on her, sitting on her forearm, and generally gathering around her.” She even has a favorite: Sneezy The Penn State Squirrel.
Since the Onward State story appeared, Krupa has evolved from a “mini-web phenomenon” to a full-blown “world sensation.” She has been featured on a host of sites and shows such as Mashable, Yahoo News, Penn State Network, two Taiwanese outlets, BuzzFeed, something called Neatorama, and Tosh.0.
Sneezy also now has a Facebook page to help share his “squirrely wonderfulness with the world.” It currently boasts more than 6,000 “likes.”
As Forthcoming As You Like
In November, officials at the State University of New York at Oswego — known as Oswego State — threatened an international journalism student with suspension and campus banishment. The student’s case — and the interim suspension he faced while it was handled — sparked what The Oswegonian student newspaper called a “national outcry” and placed the school at “the center of a national freedom of speech debate.”
For a story on the Oswego State hockey coach he was completing for a class assignment, Australian exchange student Alex Myers emailed fellow coaches at three nearby schools. In the message, he identified himself as a staffer in the school’s public affairs office, where he worked part-time. He also urged the coaches, “Be as forthcoming as you like, what you say about [the Oswego State coach] does not have to be positive.” The statement struck at least one of the emailed coaches as offensive.
It also prompted Oswego State officials to charge Myers with disruptive behavior. Coupled with a separate charge of dishonesty (for misrepresenting himself as part of public affairs), Myers was temporarily suspended and told he must leave campus almost immediately. The disruption charge was ultimately dropped and his suspension lifted, but Myers still lost the public affairs job. He was also forced to send an apology to the hockey coach and write a piece “to share with other students in journalism classes … what you have learned from your experience.”
Myers said the immense news coverage of the situation was surreal, apparently even reaching his native Australia. “It is kind of embarrassing to have my biggest error over my university career to be broadcasted nationally,” he told the Oswegonian. “It’s definitely tarnished journalism for me.”
The year’s final student-centric online craze continues to gather oodles of fat-free, skim, 1 percent, and unpasteurized buzz. In late November, a small posse of U.K. college students and young graduates premiered an activity — dubbed milking — with a video round-up “destined to become an Internet sensation.” It has spurred press coverage and copycat videos produced by students across Britain, Scotland, and, increasingly, the U.S.
As The Tab at Britain’s Leeds University explained, “Similar in difficulty to its viral cousin planking, milking simply requires the participant to purchase some milk and then pour it over their head. The result is a thing of beauty.”
A comment beneath the video confirmed, “This is legen…dairy.” An online Time magazine story similarly declared, “Move Over Planking: ‘Milking’ is the Internet’s Latest Silly Meme.” And U.K. tabloid The Sun shared simply, “It’s udder madness!”
College Memes Madness: Students Posting Non-Stop of Facebook by Dan Reimold
Year in Review: Most Viral Student Media of 2011 by Dan Reimold
Dan Reimold is an assistant professor of journalism at the University of Tampa. He writes and presents frequently on the campus press and maintains the student journalism industry blog College Media Matters, affiliated with the Associated Collegiate Press. His textbook Journalism of Ideas: Brainstorming, Developing, and Selling Stories in the Digital Age is due out in April by Routledge.