To shock or not to shock: Opinions on the ethics of shock value in journalism

When you look through history it’s not always easy to find a time when a student-run newspaper makes headlines. But when they do, it’s typically a bombshell revelation.

Last week The Daily Tarheel, the student newspaper at the University of North Carolina, made headlines of their own when they chose to run the headline: “UNC has a clusterfuck on their hands.”

The headline, while shocking, was perfectly fitting for the topic of the editorial. UNC has had several clusters of COVID-19 breakout across campus, and even more so since the article hit the press. As a result, it took officials less than 10 days to send students home and to move all classes online – a concern the UNC student body had been voicing since last school year.

BAERING is a public relations firm. Journalism and media are at the very core of what we do and who we are, so naturally the jaw dropping headline was a topic of conversation around our virtual watercooler (aka Slack). With mixed reactions internally, we wondered what our media friends around the country thought, so we began reaching out.

Shockingly, only one media member we spoke to was unaware of the headline. Everyone else, from Hawaii to rural Indiana to Philadelphia, and everywhere else in between, not only knew about it, but they had an opinion – and a strong one at that – and here’s what they had to say:

“It doesn’t bother me one bit. The main job of any journalist – and this applies to editors and headline writers as well – is to tell the truth. And that’s exactly what those students did at UNC. There’s a responsibility to speak the truth to power, and student newspapers, for as long as they’ve been around, have done a great job of putting pressure on universities when needed. Was there foul language? Of course. But it’s college kids we’re talking about. Clusterfuck is hardly the worst they’ve heard. Most importantly, it was an accurate assessment of the situation. And the attention they received likely directly contributed to UNC going virtual, which was definitely for the best. Telling truth and impacting change. By any measure, that’s exactly what every journalist should strive for.”

~ Matt Mullin, The Philly Voice, Philadelphia, Penn.

 “Without a doubt the shock value detracts from the subject matter. Yes, there are lots of people talking about the headline and the newspaper in general, but most, if not all, conversations about the article are about the headline. Personally, I know all about the editorial 5,000 miles away in Hawaii but have not read the article. If that was the headline, I think that’s the takeaway from whatever was written under it.”

 “My initial reaction to the headline was instant loss of credibility. The way I see it is that if the writer couldn’t get my attention without the shock value of swearing in the headline, then I’m not really interested to hear what that person has to say in the editorial. Especially in today’s world of social media propaganda, there should be clear separation between shocking sensationalism click bait and professionalism.”

~ Rob DeMello, KHON, Honolulu, Hawaii

 “I loved the turn of phrase. That’s as witty as it is sharp-tongued. Having watched (The Daily Tarheel) editors of the past deliberate on balancing tact with speaking truth to power, I was proud to see screenshots of their opinion page all over social media. That’s a real accomplishment.”

 “The paper didn’t shy away from controversy while I was a student – we published columns across the political spectrum that rankled pretty much everyone in Chapel Hill. Reaching beyond that would be a big win. A great headline has read the room but knows when it’s appropriate to flip over a table.”

~ Jake Potter, former assistant desk editor at The Daily Tarheel, Chapel Hill, N.C.

 My initial reaction to the headline was what almost certainly was intended by the paper’s editors: ‘WOW. That’s gutsy!’ 

 Then I took a step back. 

 It’s been about 25 years since I was a student journalist learning the craft of newspapering, but not so long ago that I can’t remember the urge to use the platform to get people to raise their eyebrows and notice me. I still was fascinated that my byline was in the Daily Eastern News five days a week. I wrote a few columns that drew some ire. The men’s basketball team probably wanted to ban me from the gym, and that was before people were crying out “Fake news!” 

 But I learned pretty quickly that the cheap shots for instant reactions didn’t last very long, and they certainly didn’t lead to any kind of respectability for me as a journalist. Just because I *could* say something in print didn’t mean I *should* say it. I learned to ask a very simple question: Is this advancing the story I need to tell, or is this an attempt to advance *me*? 

 Dropping “clusterfuck” into a headline got some attention, without question. It also very quickly took the focus off of a story that needed to be told and needed to have more people paying attention to, and put it right on the newspaper. The newspaper *became* the news, and that’s 180 degrees opposite of what the intention should have been. Instead of people putting their focus on the editorial and being convinced to take a side, most of their attention went to how gutsy the paper was to use “clusterfuck” in the headline. The point of the column quickly faded to the periphery. 

 There’s something to be said for these student journalists getting something like that out of their systems. Because the other big point of being at a student newspaper is learning skills for the next level. If any of them think they’re going to wind up at the New York Times or L.A. Times or Podunk Nowhereville Times and get away with that in a headline, they’re sorely mistaken. It’s 2020, and tolerance is at an all-time high for such things, but that’s just not going to happen in the real world. So, them practicing for real-world newspapering got put aside in this case. 

 The real practice would have been finding a way to get that same point across – even get that same word implied to the readers – without actually using it in the headline. They could have drawn more attention to the actual story than to one word. That solution could have been with words, or with visuals, or a combination of both. But it could have been done, and they’d have wound up stronger future journalists because of it.

~ Matt Erickson, USA Today Sports


Whether the headline will come back to bite the staff in the butt or if the decision to not walk, but sprint, down the path to shock and awe will reap rewards, only time will tell. But one thing is for sure: The entire country is talking about a student’s work in a college newspaper. And that’s worth writing about.