College Newspaper Writing in the GoogleAge

October 27, 2009

I ran across an article in a college newspaper, I think via a Google news search for “MDMA”. Cause I do that. The article is “Rocking and Rolling: An Inside Look at SoCal’s Rave Culture” in the University of California, Irvine paper under the byline of one Stephanie Vatz. My original response was via a Twitt:

drugmonkeyblog So completely full of FAIL that I don’t even know where to start. #MDMA

I then started wasting my time Twitting one-liner objections but then a comment by @dr_leigh (who you really should be following) started me thinking about the changing nature of college journalism.

In my day, it was nearly axiomatic that the college/university newspaper would have a serious oopsie at least once a year. The kind of oopsie that drew fire from professors and required intervention from the administration…and occasionally a letter to the alumni. Actually, I seem to recall receiving one of these letters to alumni a few years ago so the tradition must be alive and well.
Typically, the oopsie was some sort of highly inflammatory bit of racist or misogynistic cartooning or editorializing. It might also be under the guise of humor, frequently associated with the April Fool’s edition. Of course if your campus had an edgy satirical paper (this one is infamous; likely NSFW) bets are off..but I digress.
Again, in my day the college newspaper oopsie was pretty contained. The print newspaper has a limited circulation and a rapid expiration. It served as a great training ground for people who thought they might like to be journalists because their mistakes were localized. Contained.
With the modern age, these poor kids have their stuff up on the Intertoobs for anyone to see. To find by common search terms. For people to criticize.
I stopped at the first Twitt originally because I figured this bit was so spectacularly uninformed that the author was probably just starting out. Why get up in the face of (yet another) crappy bit of college journalism?
The problem, of course, is that even the really bad college journalism forms the background noise of the “Google U” made famous by Jenny McCarthy. People interested in the effects of MDMA and/or Ecstasy will find this article- I noticed it because it was coming up pretty high on a Google News search.
There is also the consideration that there is really no excuse here. Zero. The internet is littered with sites which will serve up summaries of the related literature. I am certain that UCI has decent electronic journal access, an actual library and very likely a professor or two that could inform this journalist. From my view of the article, she didn’t seem to have done much background reading even on the Internet. Nevermind actually looking at a paper or six..or even a decent review article. The stuff she wrote is mostly wrong or seriously misleading…and of course there are no citations to the academic literature. Really, how hard is it so simply say “Hatzidimitriou et al, 1999” instead of “An experiment performed in 1999..”?
What do you think DearReader? Is it gauche to beat up on some poor kid who couldn’t be bothered to research an article for some crappy college newspaper?

No Responses Yet to “College Newspaper Writing in the GoogleAge”

  1. JohnV Says:

    Just a warning, and I make it under the assumption that a picture of a naked amputee is nsfw, the link to thekoala contains at least one nsfw image 😛


  2. Alex Says:

    Nah, I don’t think it’s wrong. This person needs to either learn a tough lesson or stop writing, and the way she learns the lesson is she gets beat up a little.(Metaphorically! Jeez!) You’re doing her a favor. Misinforming people about drugs is a serious offense.


  3. Roadtripper Says:

    Let’s assume that someone doing journalism in college is doing so for the purpose of learning about journalism. (Seems reasonable, I think.) This is an important practical lesson: if they try to b.s. their way through a story, they’ll get caught.
    This was true enough before the internet age, but now the effect is far more pervasive and immediate. It’s better if an aspiring journalist comes to understand this while in college, before entering the professional media. With luck, they’ll wise up, put it behind them, and it won’t come back to bite them on the ass four years later when they’re job-hunting.
    Give ’em all the kicking around the story merits. If it’s really that bad, they might be convinced to change majors. There are plenty of journalism students who understand how and why to fact-check without getting schooled by Twitter U. We need more of those, and fewer sloppy b.s. artists.


  4. DSKS Says:

    “What do you think DearReader? Is it gauche to beat up on some poor kid who couldn’t be bothered to research an article for some crappy college newspaper?”
    Absolutely not. Kids today (by which I mean anybody under the age of 55) are so interwebified with Twatter, blogs, forums and all that malarkey that they really don’t have any excuse for not having aired their ideas to be ‘peer reviewed’ by the public on a regular basis (a not just a discreet section of the public that already agrees with them; that is so 90’s); certainly prior to putting those ideas in an ‘official’ form and stamping it with one’s real name instead of under the cloak of anonymity.
    Flame away, man, flame away.


  5. becca Says:

    Totally out of line. I mean, you linked to the motherfucking koala. You know why we don’t take college newspapers seriously. If the koala came up high on a google for rape, would you think it appropriate or remotely useful to bitch at them for being pathetic unfunny sacks of shit about it?


  6. DrugMonkey Says:

    becca, it was unwise of me to deviate into the consideration of satirical publications because they are clearly operating under a different standard than we should expect of the mainstream newspaper of a University. Don’t you agree? It is in any case a matter of tactics because I’ve found that when the satirical publications are criticized, it just makes them re-double their efforts to offend. Not so with the main-stream publications which seem, from an organizational perspective anyway, to aspire to semi-serious journalism.


  7. Dan Says:

    As Steve Stearns wrote: “We owe it to our students to grant them the privilege of learning from the opportunity to fail, and to fail in serious ways.” (
    Whether these students want to become journalists or not, we do them no favors by pretending that their actions have no consequences. We don’t have to treat them as harshly as we might professional journalists, but we shouldn’t treat them like children.


  8. Ron Says:

    Let’s think about this example a bit more personally. If you walked into a room of college bound freshmen and this person was providing the same information via lecture or even casual conversation, what would you do? In fact, if your friends or family were being told this by someone in conversation, what moral or even just plain old protectionist reaction might you have? And I’m not equating morality here with drug taking, but with serious misrepresentation of information. If you are going to indulge in recreational drugs, you outta at least have the straight facts.


  9. bsci Says:

    As a former college newspaper science section editor, I’d suggest you should have first contacted the student directly. Very often they are trying to learn how to do this correctly. Hearing that a non-student actually read my article and is bothering to help me learn would have been great. Getting random insults broadcast on the internets not as much. Also don’t think that most student journalists are planning journalism careers. I enjoyed it as a college activity and it was an amazing experience to walk into labs and learn about interesting things from enthusiastic scientist. I also picked up very useful writing/communication skills and others nurturing those skills (without needless insults) would have been appreciated. I’d say less than half the people I worked with have a career that has anything to do with journalism or publishing.
    Also remember that students are generally doing this without pay and all research for an article is done at the expense of classwork and social life. That doesn’t lower standards, but someone isn’t going to spend 20+ hours on a primary literature review to write articles every other week. In addition, student science journalism has a huge weakness compared to classic professional science journalism. Most pros get into some areas of specialization and can draw on their experience or contacts to fill out an article on a topic. This saves immense amounts of time. Students will be bouncing to new topics for every article, which makes quality science writing much more time consuming.


  10. becca Says:

    Sorry DM. Remember how young I am. Jon Stewart has always been the most true news on TV. I hold the satire to a higher standard (‘if you’re going to tell people the truth, you have to make them laugh, or they’ll kill you’).
    Anyway, I agree that the context is important. Do you regularly read this newspaper? Do you know the frame they are operating under?
    Is the article just lacking in content, or does it have content that will actually damage people (I read the article and have trouble understanding what’s so very wrong with it)?
    Do you know the likely audience of the article, and how they would respond to this? Are people reading this looking for summaries of the related literature?
    All that said, bsci has a point. It’s perfectly reasonable to contact the student or comment on the post and say you think X and Y important points were left out. I know that, FWDAOTI nonewithstanding, you’re probably not going to rush in there with a UR DOIN IT RONG!1


  11. DrugMonkey Says:

    I read the article and have trouble understanding what’s so very wrong with it


  12. A Graduate Student at UCI Says:

    Perhaps a graduate student at UCI could write a letter to the editor correcting some of the factual errors in this piece.


  13. Stephanie Z Says:

    Now you’ve done it, Becca. You finally broke DM.
    DM, some things, like articles that lead kids to believe that the people who die from drugs only died because they were doing it wrong, deserve fisking. It isn’t punitive, or doesn’t have to be. You know as well as I do that saying someone is factually wrong can be done without saying they’re a bad person. There’s plenty of bad information out there, as well as a bunch of poorly synthesized information. This is an opportunity to make a point about why it’s important to find and understand the good stuff.
    Of course, Twitter might not be the best venue for that much nuance….


  14. Funky Fresh Says:

    You know as well as I do that saying someone is factually wrong can be done without saying they’re a bad person.

    Ugh. This craps gets really old, really fast.


  15. becca Says:

    What? How’d I break DM??
    It wasn’t a good article, mind.
    I just don’t see it as saying “the only way people die from MDMA is by doing it wrong” at all.
    I’m assuming you think mentioning the cardiac problems in the same paragraph as dehydration is misleading. However, since all of the writing is bad, I don’t think you can assume the author is trying to connect those ideas just because they are in the same paragraph.


  16. You know as well as I do that saying someone is factually wrong can be done without saying they’re a bad person.



  17. Stephanie Z Says:

    Becca, I was talking about the dehydration issue, but in the context of people who more or less cook themselves to death on ecstasy. I’m pretty sure DM has previously questioned the assumption that these people just let themselves get dehydrated.
    Funky Fresh, it’s quite all right. You can still call people asshats without adding anything of substance to the discussion. However, you should be able to understand that name-calling and constructive criticism are two separate things.


  18. Funky Fresh Says:

    Wait, yo. I clicked that link. What discussion are you having here?


  19. Stephanie Z Says:

    What am I saying by posting Yellow Rage? That it’s art–good art. That it communicates something difficult to hear in an engaging way (people say what to you?). That I appreciate that they were able to take the anger that can be a barrier to communication and turn it into a compelling structure and delivery for their insights. That I understand that they’re pros (whether or not they make any money from this) who didn’t just dash something off in a fit of pique but wrote this and rehearsed it and honed the details until they got it right. That they did something difficult that could have failed at so many points but they pulled it off.
    Not much of a discussion, really, just a statement.


  20. Funky Fresh Says:

    It’s really semantics, isn’t it?


  21. JohnV Says:

    Here we go….


  22. Stephanie Z Says:

    What is really semantics? You do understand that when people are arguing semantics, they’re generally arguing over differing meanings of the same word, not different words with different meanings, I assume.


  23. Funky Fresh Says:

    Yeah, I think most of us know what semantics are. The women in your yellow rage video call the recipeitn of their wrath a “motherfucker” and and maybe an “asshole” if I remember right. You call that compelling structure and delivery. Do you think it was very constructive criticism?


  24. Stephanie Z Says:

    No, I think the most constructive of the criticism was the part about asking them to translate something and explaining why that felt trivializing. The structure that I was referring to was using “Listen, asshole…” as a bridge to a new set of thoughts, a little pause for the listener, as well as the jumble of words at the front that sets the tone for the whole piece by reaching beyond it. Everything after that is a half step back from the edge.
    You may want to go back to the point (comment 17) where I said that name-calling and constructive criticism are separate. Then perhaps to comment 19, where I talk about potential barriers to their message and the difficulty of doing what they did well. Name-calling can make getting a message across harder than it is otherwise, and frankly, not everyone can pull that off.


  25. Yeah kids today have absolutely no excuse. There are so many resources ou there today that it’s impossible not to succeed with effort.


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