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Let's Talk Sex, Hugs and Ethics

by on October 14, 2011 7:30 AM

In 2007, filmmaker Aaron Mathews produced a documentary called "The Paper" about life at the Daily Collegian.

Among the plotlines the movie pursued was the editors' struggles to make the paper relevant. Circulation was tumbling and the editorial page editor was desperate for letters.

Some staffers thought the paper needed to do more hard-hitting investigative journalism. Others thought the paper needed to be more fun – more features on the dating scene, for example.

Along came the Kiss-Out – the now-annual Valentine's Day celebration of public displays of same-sex affection. Gay couples gathered in front of Old Main and smooched while a Collegian photographer clicked.

The next day, one of the photos ran on the front page. The day after that, a letter writer said he was disgusted by the photo. Several hundred letter writers then said they were disgusted by the homophobic letter.

Amid the debate over whether the Collegian should have printed the Kiss-Out photo and/or the letter denouncing the Kiss-Out photo, one thing was indisputable: Suddenly, the Collegian was being read and talked about and the editorial page editor had more letters than he could print.

A similar situation has played out this past week. Once again, the triggering topic was sex. This time, it was a column on the editorial page with this headline: "Let's talk sex, hugs and handjobs." The writer didn't say much more than that she loved sex and thought it should be talked about more. The column made more sense when one got to the bottom and learned that this was the first installment of what is going to be a weekly sex column, "Mounting Nittany."

Reaction, in the form of online commentary, was swift and extensive. Among those who thought the column shouldn't have been published, some found the subject matter objectionable, while others said the only problem with it was that it was so poorly written.

A minority admired the writer's courage. A few wanted to know if she had plans for the weekend. The word that appeared over and over in the posts was "embarrassing."

So, Mr. Journalism Ethics Professor, should the Collegian have printed the column?

Let's begin with the taste question. All of us have pronounced this or that behavior or cultural phenomenon tasteless at one time or another, as if some universal standard of taste had been violated.

In fact, though, taste is pretty local. Even the Collegian and the Centre Daily Times are going to make very different decisions about content based on the differing sensibilities of their overlapping, but non-identical readerships. (Don't look for the word "handjobs" in a CDT headline anytime soon.)

Of course, there is also going to be individual variation within communities, but like many college newspapers, the Collegian is probably correct in assuming that few students are going to be shocked or outraged by words or accounts that other communities might regard as vulgar or obscene. Presumably, if the paper were inundated with complaints every time it printed four-letter words and graphic descriptions of sex, it would become a bit more straitlaced.

A second set of objections to "Let's talk sex" has less to do with its tastelessness than with its triviality. As one letter writer put it, "When I read the student newspaper, I expect to hear about important things that happen around campus, not who's banging who under a crab apple tree."

The thinking here stems from the idea that a newspaper's primary purpose is to tell its readers things they need to know. Since space is finite, at least in the print edition, a paper shirks its ethical responsibilities when it devotes precious column inches to the silly rather than the serious.

Silly vs. serious is not an either/or proposition, however. Even our most high-minded newspapers strive for a daily balance between silly and serious, light and heavy. After all, our lives are often goofy one minute and grave the next. A paper that fed us a steady diet of the Great Issues of the Day would be pretty unpalatable – all spinach and no ice cream.

A third set of objections to "Let's talk sex" stems from the suspicion that the only possible reason to print such drivel was to boost readership. As with the triviality objection, the thinking is that a paper's primary responsibility is to serve its readers. Increased readership should result from good journalism, not sensationalism.

The obvious rejoinder here is that no one was obliged to read "Let's talk sex." The number of comments and letters indicates clear interest in the topic. Again, as long as the paper isn't abandoning coverage of more important news, using a sex column to attract readers is no worse than using comics, the horoscopes or, dare I say it, football, to attract readers.

In sum, as an ethics teacher, I don't object to the column because it was tasteless or trivial or sensationalistic. As a writing teacher, however...

A collection of Russell Frank's columns, titled “Among the Woo People: A Survival Guide for Living in a College Town," is available from the Penn State University Press. His columns for won first place for commentary in the 2019 Society of Professional Journalists Keystone Chapter Best in Journalism contest. The winning columns: The Women’s March: Notes from New York, It’s Time to Change the Script and Mixed Messages at Bellefonte High. Frank is a member of the journalism faculty at Penn State. Before launching his academic career, he worked as a reporter, editor and columnist at newspapers in California and Pennsylvania. He is, by academic training, a folklorist (Ph.D., UPenn), which means, when you strip away the academic jargon, that he loves a good story. His views and opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Penn State University.
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