April 17, 2010 in Washington Voices

Query on fame draws answers that inflame

Controversial comments get University High student newspaper edition destroyed
By The Spokesman-Review
 
J. BART RAYNIAK photo

University High School Mercury co-editors Danny Bush, left, and Tyler Pursch answer questions from local media concerning racial and offensive language printed in the student newspaper last week. “It wouldn’t happen again,” Pursch said.
(Full-size photo)(All photos)

Titan Talk has been a long-running tradition in the student newspaper, The Mercury, at University High School.

It’s a simple concept – reporters ask several people one question and print their responses. The question could be about issues affecting the community or it could be a fun question that gives responders a chance to be humorous.

Many newspapers run this kind of column, including The Spokesman-Review Valley Voice. Readers like it, as they can often find friends and family members in the column. Editors like it, because it gets their reporters out of the office and out talking to readers, and it doesn’t take a lot of time to complete.

But it’s often one of the most commented-on pieces in the paper. Any reporter at the Voices can tell you that the most seemingly innocent of questions can end up receiving many complaints based on the answers people give.

That was the problem this week at U-Hi. The question was easy enough – “If you could be famous for anything, what would you be famous for?”

Some of the answers were funny. “Creating a mix breed between a giraffe, alligator and monkey.” “Fastest land speed on a unicycle.” “Making the world’s largest pizza.” “First person to walk on Pluto.”

But school officials and parents didn’t think there was anything funny about some other answers. “Dropping a nuke on the Middle East.” “Being JFK’s assassin.” “Leader of the KKK.” “Killing the president with a trident.”

The answers were so controversial that school officials collected almost every copy of the April 9 edition of the Mercury and destroyed them. They are now also investigating whether any of the students were serious about the comments they had made.

Principal Daryl Hart, who served as spokesman for the school staff including newspaper adviser Paul Jensen, said that some of the responders told him they had been joking and had asked not to be quoted in the paper.

He first became aware of the problem on Tuesday.

“I was horrified,” Hart said.

He said the newspaper has two student editors who read the content of the paper and then turn it over to the newspaper adviser, who also reads the paper before it is sent off to press.

In this case, the paper was put together in the waning days of the second trimester – a stressful time for students and teachers before they are released for spring break. The two editors missed the answers and so did the adviser.

“It was a joke and it’s not funny,” Hart said. “Our student editors feel bad about that.”

The two student editors, seniors Danny Bush and Tyler Pursch, said most of the students in the school realize the answers were meant to be jokes.

Bush said when students are asked the question they often try to one-up each other with their answers.

“They were absolutely joking,” Bush said. “It was for the shock value.”

The two editors who have been on staff at the Mercury for three years said this has been a huge lesson for them.

Pursch said the controversy has been a bit of a thrill – something they printed in the paper has people talking, even though it’s for the wrong reasons.

“It wouldn’t happen again,” Pursch said.

Bush said with a small editing staff of three people on a tight deadline, they somehow missed the comments. He has made it a habit to read everything in the paper from cover to cover on the day it comes out. He will be sure to change that habit in the future.

“From now on, I’m going to make sure I read everything before it comes out,” he said. “This is a learning experience.”

Hart said that no decision has been made about any disciplinary action for anyone involved in this case, but he agrees with Bush about the experience for the newspaper staff.

“This is a teachable moment,” Hart said.

Get stories like this in a free daily email


Please keep it civil. Don't post comments that are obscene, defamatory, threatening, off-topic, an infringement of copyright or an invasion of privacy. Read our forum standards and community guidelines.

You must be logged in to post comments. Please log in here or click the comment box below for options.

comments powered by Disqus