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Teaching moments of humility, responsibility and accountability



I felt empathy with Judy Gibbs Robinson as I read about The Oklahoma Daily's handling of a controversial editorial cartoon. Judy is editorial adviser of the student newspaper at the University of Oklahoma.

Last week, several students and faculty complained to The Daily about a cartoon, a panel showing a man entering a dorm laundry room, a woman leaning over a washer, a condom machine in the background and the door being locked. The cartoonist apparently intended his work as satire about the possibility of making condoms available in the dorms.

Some readers didn't see it that way. They viewed the cartoon as sexist and suggesting rape.

The editor apologized in a "From the editor" column. The cartoonist used Facebook to express his thoughts, which were picked up by a reader and posted in the newspaper's online comments section. His thoughts further antagonized readers.

The controversy brought back memories of my days as editorial adviser. I was thinking, "Thank you, Jesus, for letting this firestorm occur on Judy's watch and not mine." I had my share, however. My boss called them "teaching moments."

One of the controversies during my time at OU dealt with a cartoon depicting an air conditioner attached to a sweat lodge, a sacred symbol to Native Americans. It created so much controversy that the editor, cartoonist and offended Native Americans met with OU President David L. Boren.

Critics called for the editor's head, the First Amendment was debated, and after much discussion, they appeared to agree that the editor had the right to publish the cartoon, but because of the nature of it, she probably shouldn't have. As the meeting was about to break up, the editor said that if she had to make the decision again, she would choose to publish. Boren suggested a visit with the school's multicultural advisory board.

I talked to that former editor, Joy Mathis Mayer (one of the best editors I ever had), on Facebook as I was writing this column. She's now an associate professor at the University of Missouri-Columbia, where she teaches participatory journalism, print design and multimedia design.

"Man, I was young and arrogant," she said. "I remember feeling backed into a corner and having to quickly figure out what to say when asked whether I would make the same decision to publish again. I just couldn't find a way to gracefully get out of that. I felt the need to assert my right to publish at all costs.

"Now that I teach college students, there's a special poignancy in the memory, and a reminder to have humility and grace along with confidence in one's rights and skills."

As unpleasant, hurtful and distasteful as controversies can be to all concerned, I believe student journalists learn humility, responsibility and accountability when enduring these kinds of experiences.

I also believe that students learn more journalism working for the student newspaper or broadcast outlet than they do in the classroom or in a lab. When their mistakes are published or aired for all to see, they get an up-close-and-personal look at how angry they can make readers and viewers, how insensitive and careless their work can be at times, and how much unintentional damage they can cause. The gravity of their decisions and their mistakes doesn't really hit home until a furious reader yells in their ear.

The student journalists' first response to criticism can be defensive " much like the rest of us. But then, after they think about it from the reader's perspective and rethink their actions, they learn. They remember that incident, and they usually don't make the same blunder again. And what they learn, too, is that everyone isn't going to always agree with their decisions, right or wrong.

And then one day, when they're about to commit another "teaching moment," the light comes on, and they muse, "Oh, yeah, that's what the professor was talking about in class."

Willis, a former Muskogee Phoenix managing editor, teaches public affairs reporting at Oklahoma State University.

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