East Carolina University wrong to fire student paper adviser over photo of nude streaker

Paul Isom is looking for a new job today. He was the student media director at East Carolina University. Why was he canned?

On Nov. 8, the [student] newspaper published a full-frontal photo of a streaker who ran onto the field during that weekend’s home football game. The decision prompted outcry from some readers and from university administrators who said it was “in very poor taste.”

If this photo was so controversial and in “very poor taste,” why did the university require two months to decide to give Isom four hours to clean out his office and get outta Dodge?

No doubt lawyers were consulted. After the photo was published, the university’s vice chancellor for student affairs, Virginia Hardy, presaged what would come to pass:

We will be having conversations with those who were involved in this decision in an effort to make it a learning experience. The goal will be to further the students’ understanding that with the freedom of the press comes a certain level of responsibility about what is appropriate and effective in order to get their message across.

Learning experience my ass. The goal of the lesson being taught here is to warn student journalists and their advisers to not cross the university when it comes to maligning its image.

First Amendment be damned; protect the good name of the university — and its abilities to maintain a flack-polished, positive public image so that it can recruit and retain students and faculty and continue to raise money for the university’s endowment and other needs.

I wonder what Sandra Mims-Rowe, retired editor of The Daily Oregonian and a six-time Pulitzer Prize receipient; Dan Neil of The Los Angeles Times, another Pulitzer Prize recipient; Margaret O’Connor, former photo editor of The New York Times and two-time Pulitzer Prize recipient, and Rick Atkinson, journalist, author and three-time Pulitzer recipient, think about canning the adviser. These distinguished journalists are graduates of East Carolina University touted on the university’s website.

The university’s blunt message to student reporters and editors (and future student media advisers) is obvious: Journalism is about maintaining others’ standards of taste rather than their own editorial judgments on how to depict reality. In other words, protect the university’s image.

The university is wrong here: Publishing photos of a person who streaked nude across Bagwell Field at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium in a game against the University of Southern Mississippi is news occurring in a public forum. Security staffers tackled the man at the 50-yard line. The photos depicted that. Thus the photos provided a visual account of how security staffers handled themselves in a difficult situation. That’s what newspapers do: Hold government (in this case, the university) accountable for its actions.

The editor, Cailtin Hale, defended the newspaper’s decision:

This decision was made because we felt that our audience, which is primarily the ECU student body, should have access to unedited and factual photos of the streaking incident at last Saturday’s ECU football game. While the photos may be seen as offensive to some, the photos were not meant to be seen as sexually suggestive or insulting, but instead an accurate account of Saturday’s events. [emphasis added]

But the newspaper’s editors did not stop with merely publishing controversial photos. This is a cops and courts story: The paper followed the court case, covering the arrest of the person accused of being the streaker, and doing a follow-up on the court appearance in which the accused was given back his clothes and allowed to apologize to the court.

But all this doesn’t hand Isom, the student media adviser since 2008, his job back.

Frank LoMonte, executive director of the Student Press Law Center, said firing a man who has advised student publications professionally since 1994 raises First Amendment concerns. From a center press release:

“There’s no camouflaging what this is, which is retaliation for an editorial judgment made by the students that was completely within the students’ authority to make,” LoMonte said. “They’re clearly punishing the adviser for something he not only didn’t control, but legally couldn’t control.”

Isom said he has no problem fighting his termination, and isn’t ruling out legal action against the university.

“If I was not willing to stand up for a First Amendment issue, then I wouldn’t have been advising them the way that I was advising them,” he said. “I would have told them, ‘Yeah, don’t run any controversial pictures, don’t make anybody mad.’”

In my teaching career, I have advised three collegiate newspapers. Students occasionally err in judgment. Such errors in student judgment are the cost universities must bear if they offer journalism programs and encourage independent student newspapers. But not all decisions universities find appalling are errors in student judgments.

This ECU case was not an error in judgment by editor Hale and her staff. They captured a reality that occurred in full view of fans sitting in a 50,000-person stadium. I would have been disappointed in a judgment to not run photos of an event with so many witnesses.

Isom should sue. He did nothing that warranted the university stripping him of his job and his reputation. The university should save itself the cost of defending against the lawsuit and hire him back. Immediately.

Then again, this is the university that graduated Vince and Linda McMahon, founders and chief executives of World Wrestling Entertainment. Maybe the university prefers to wrestle in the mud of public opinion.

11 comments on “East Carolina University wrong to fire student paper adviser over photo of nude streaker

  1. With luck, one or more of those distinguished ECU alums will take this opportunity to teach the marketing department a lesson in image management. I know I would. And if any of the three schools that I have earned degrees from did something like this I’d create some bad PR for them were I positioned to do so. (I’ve certainly raised hell about the U of Colorado.)

    Still, I suppose everyone has learned a lesson about how the real world works, haven’t they?

  2. While I agree with you and others who think the adviser was wrongly held accountable for the actions of the student editors, I think your column leaves out a critical piece of information.

    When you argue that the editors did not make a bad decision, you ground it in the fact that the photos showed an important reality about the streaking event. But without a link to the three photos (here’s the Romenesko column with the photos: http://jimromenesko.com/2012/01/05/adviser-fired-after-college-paper-runs-photos-of-streaker/) — or a mention that one of the three photos showed full frontal nudity — the column seems incomplete to me.

    I teach media ethics at a university and often argue in that class for the use of graphic images when they tell the story in an important way. In fact, one of the photos I use is of a streaker who ran across the field at a high school football game (he was the son of a state legislator) that ran in the local paper. I think the ECU editors could easily told the story visually by running either or both of the other photos and avoided the full frontal nudity shot. The second shot, in particular, that shows part of the streaker’s rear end clearly indicates that he was naked. I don’t know that I need to see his genitals to understand that fact.

    Instead, the first photograph seems gratuitous — the kind of thing that student writers often do for shock effect, like dropping curse words into stories whenever they can in a quote. As teachers, we need to help them learn to use the power of words and images to compel readers/viewers to pay attention to the news rather than going for what I consider to be the cheap shot.

    I also wish your post had provided readers with the context regarding the student column (more of a rant, really) about birth control that ran in the same paper in the fall. Again, while I understand that it is the editors who opted to run that piece, a mention of that controversy just a few months ago seems relevant.

    • Liz: Thanks for the comment. I appreciate your perspective, but there’s this part of me that has a hard time getting past the need to enforce Puritan ideas about how disgusting the human body is on journalistic ethics. Let’s be honest – when you get to the core of the complaint, this isn’t about journalism, it’s about religion. And the US is probably the only developed nation on earth where this conversation is even taking place.

      If the school in question is parochial, I might just shake my head and move along. But it’s a state school, so the deeply underlying theology bothers me.

  3. Professor Skewes,

    Thanks for your cogent comment. I’d seen the photos before I posted. For me, the nude figure is sufficiently far from the camera to make full frontal nudity a minor issue. If the shot had been cropped much tighter, or the photographer simply closer, I might have advised not running it. But even if the students had ignored my advice, I would have supported a decision to run it.

    I simply do not consider the first photo to be gratuitous. The streaker ran naked at a public event. If readers are going to be shocked by a newspaper’s reflection of reality, then they can cancel their subscriptions.

    Newspapers today are too damn bland. I don’t wish to encourage student journalists to fail to tell (or show) it like it is.

    Again, thanks for the time you invested in your comment.

  4. Dr. Skewes, Denny,
    As a photojournalism teacher, I appreciate your perspectives on the issues raised by printing the pictures. It’s really a classic case study in ethics. It could go either way. To me, when the media outlet that publishes the image becomes the story, that attention detracts from the real story on the field.
    But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t publish it; it only means it’s time to take a step back and really think about the implications and prepare to answer the critics.
    It looks like that happened here, so I won’t second-guess the decision, but I intend to use it as a case study in class. Perhaps I might right an article on it in some venue.
    The firing of the adviser is a totally separate issue, the implications of which, Denny captures brilliantly. I think we all need to take a stand about that in any way we can.
    The SPJ is also looking into it.
    This is a “teachable moment” that I hope transcends the classroom.
    Jack Zibluk
    Professor of journalism
    Faculty Senate president
    Arkansas State University

  5. Pingback: Full frontal nudity in a journalism faculty discussion | Bob Stepno's Other Journalism

  6. I worked with Paul at a NYTRENG newspaper for several years, and I’ve always been impressed by his passion for real journalism. So impressed in fact that I mentioned to my son (the budding photographer, videographer and writer) he might want to consider ECU. I explained to him that there’s a guy that his dad worked with who would be a great mentor for him. It’s appalling to me to see institutions that smite those who champion a free press. In the SPJ article, it mentions that a representative of the Marketing department was present when Paul was fired. This, to me anyway, speaks volumes about where ECU’s thought process is. The one item that they don’t seem to be understanding in this is that by firing Paul, they have made what was a regional blip on the radar into a national discussion by journalists and other concerned citizens and have done more damage to their reputation rather than leaving well-enough alone. I am a graduate student at the University of Alabama, and rest assured, when I finish my degree and am looking for a job, ECU won’t be on the list.

    I think that there needs to be additional questions that are asked here, too. For example, what actions were taken against the school’s police department (which I assume would be in charge of security on their campus) and the person in charge of facilities? It seems both would be equally responsible for blighting the good name and reputation of ECU. To treat Paul any differently is discriminatory.

    Paul will land on his feet when the smoke clears from all of this. I am confident too that wherever he goes, they will have a competent, established journalist who will guide the students well.

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