Smile Politely

In defense of the DI

It’s a fairly rare moment when Champaign-Urbana catches the eye of the national news, and lately, it’s been for all the wrong reasons, specifically at the University of Illinois. As if firing the Chancellor of the Urbana-Champaign campus wasn’t enough, the U of I has also seen itself embroiled in an athletics scandal that has lead to the dismissal of the head football coach, Tim Beckman, and the Athletic Director, Mike Thomas, just this week.

As if things could get worse, USA Today, the paper that is given away most frequently at hotel front desks and airports alike, picked up the story of The Daily Illini running a shockingly insensitive Halloween-based cartoon, featuring an objectively not-funny joke about illegal immigration.

I’m not sure there’s a way to write what I’m about to write without coming off as an insensitive ass. At the risk of doing so, let me first state that I write this with the underlying belief that this cartoon was disgusting. It was inaccurate, insensitive, and played off of everything that Donald Trump tries to key into whenever he stands at a podium. It had no place in any type of mass circulation, let alone a publication that seeks journalistic integrity above all else. It shouldn’t have run. Bottom line.

As both a former employee (when I was in school) and a former student, I can say with certainty that The Daily Illini has an interesting reputation on campus. While it is constantly lampooned by sites like the UIUC subreddit, the student population seems to carry many of the same concerns: the stories are written by amateurs and often lack the excitement or journalistic quality to keep them on par with a professional publication, like the Chicago Tribune, or even the Champaign News-Gazette.

It’s easy to have someone or something like that — something that consistently makes mistakes (though remarkably few given their experience levels and rigors of publication schedules) to always be able to lay to waste — but this isn’t a column like that, rather the opposite. If people need a whipping post in central Illinois, the DI usually fills that role, but quite frankly, that’s both unnecessary and wrong.

The increased number of people who suddenly believe political correctness should be avoided like the plague is a troubling trend, to say the least, so I’d like to make myself clear: I don’t support the DI because of what they published. Rather, I support them because of what they are — a vehicle for students to learn the process of journalism. They’re not a for-profit, media-mogul-owned empire.

Those who were quick to jump on the DI, including internet commenters and Facebook posters alike, must take a step back and examine the scope of the paper, and what it seeks to accomplish. Yes, they are a newspaper, presenting presumably useful information to the masses, and as such, they have a duty to have a certain amount of professionalism — something beyond the 140-character depths that are more common among 18-21 year-olds. But they’re also 18-21 year-olds running their own paper for the first time.

I’m not saying that the DI should be immune to criticism, and I’m not saying that the outrage over this cartoon is wrong, but what I am saying is that as critics, and as a community, we must remember that the DI, at its core, is a learning experience for all involved. These are not professional journalists, though some commentators like to hold them to the ideal standard of writers with much higher expectations. Sure, their website looks nice and their articles are on the internet, but that doesn’t mean they should be held to the same, no-mistake, standard as journalists who have been writing for daily newspapers for years. It’s simply impossible given the amount of people who are doing this for the first time, and quite frankly, it’s amazing that mistakes like this cartoon snafu don’t happen more regularly — that’s a testament to the DI’s hard work. Besides one batshit crazy editorial every year, the paper itself is generally spot on and represents a student perspective from both sides of any given issue.

The next time someone criticizes The Daily Illini, just remember that these are teenagers, many of which hold other jobs or internships on top of coursework, and are doing this job because of raw passion and for extremely little pay — many times into the very early hours of the morning. It’s many of their first times ever working within the bustling walls of a newsroom. Mistakes are going to happen for beginners, it happens in every single industry; it’s just unfortunate that it had to be this specific cartoon.

The Daily Illini handled the cartoon situation with professional precision, promptly ending the contract with the company that supplies the syndicated work and setting forth new procedures in which to review syndicated cartoons before they go to publish, probably a system that should have been in place to prevent this sort of problem from happening. They acted swiftly, even if it was a reaction instead of a proaction. They owned up to their mistakes, and moved on in a professional manner – and from a bunch of kids in a newsroom late at night after a full day of classes, that seems pretty damn good to me.

No, the cartoon should never have been published in the first place, but ultimately, the DI is a place for students to learn about real-world journalism, and as such, mistakes are natural, and we, as a community, have a duty to be understanding. We shouldn’t place the same inflexible standards on the Daily Illini that we place on the Washington Post, it’s just not feasible. I’m sure this cartoon will haunt the current editors of the paper for months to come, but I can also guarantee that they’ll always check the syndicated cartoon before publishing it now — that is, if they learned from their mistakes. They apologized and took rapid action, and that maturity is what makes me optimistic for the future of journalism in both Champaign-Urbana and the entire country.

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