After adding a blog, Facebook page, Flickr account and Twitter handle over the last few years and unveiling its overhauled website this fall, it is clear that the Bowdoin Orient is no longer simply a newspaper. Recent editors-in-chief have acknowledged that these extensions of the Orient brand are experimental, and the policies and guidelines for each of these platforms have evolved over time. 

With these expansions into social media, mistakes have certainly been made. Some, the editors have apologized for (see “On the record,” November 30, 2012), and some they have not. But to me, no mistake has been quite as troubling as the Orient’s decision to repost tweets from prospective students who had been accepted, wait-listed and rejected from Bowdoin over Spring Break. 

On March 22, the Orient’s Twitter account @bowdoinorient retweeted 13 tweets by high school seniors responding to their decision letters from the Office of Admissions. One of those 13 tweets was from a prospective student who had been accepted, and it read, “Just got accepted into Bowdoin! #woooooo #polarbear #wooooo.”

The other 12 tweets were from students who had been either wait-listed or rejected by the College. Here are a sampling of the tweets retweeted by the Orient, which provide a sense of the nature of the students’ responses:

  •  “Rejection’s a bitch, Oh well. It’s probably for the best that I’m not going to Bowdoin. What a way to end the day…”
  •  “Just got my first denial… Bowdoin College. Wooooo!! I really didn’t want to go to Maine :)” 
  •  “No that’s fine bowdoin…I didn’t want to go there anyways”
  •  “Got waitlisted at Bowdoin……. so bummed” 

In evaluating whether the Orient should have retweeted those comments, there are a variety of things to consider. The first is whether the Orient had the right to publish the tweets at all. 
In that regard, there is little question that the Orient had the right to retweet them. The tweets were opinions expressed on public accounts, and the Orient committed no breach of journalistic integrity in retweeting them.

Over the last few days, this has been the most frequent argument in defense of the decision by people I have spoken with. Multiple students have said something along the lines of, “The Orient did nothing wrong. These students, who all have public twitter accounts, made the decision to tweet those comments, so the Orient is well within its right to republish them.”

Again, I agree that the Orient had the right to retweet the comments, but I think it is important to hold the Orient to a much higher standard of discretion. Rather than asking if the Orient did anything wrong, we should be asking if it did anything right. A second—and I think much more important—question to ask is why the Orient thought it was important for its readership to see these tweets. What value did they add? 

One response might be that the immediate reactions of the people affected by the College’s decision letters are relevant to the Bowdoin community. Since the Orient is rarely able to interview the affected parties in this particular case, students and alumni of the College rarely see such responses.  In addition, the College’s official Twitter account @bowdoincollege was retweeting the tweets of accepted students, so perhaps the Orient believed that its audience would benefit from a broader perspective.  

If that was the intent, it was executed poorly. Only one of the 13 tweets was from an accepted student, and the vast majority of the tweets—particularly some of the more explicit ones—seemed to be chosen more for their humor and shock value than for their ability to add to our understanding of the admission process. After all, do readers really need to be told that acceptance is great and rejection feels terrible?

This leads into a third and final issue that I think it is important to address—the role of compassion in the Orient’s coverage. While some may balk at the concept of allowing compassion and empathy to get in the way of journalism, I think it is a fair thing to consider for the campus newspaper at a small college. 

As the editors themselves wrote in the November 30, 2012 editorial, “As a student-run newspaper, we empathize with and understand the concerns of our peers who request that their names not be attached to sensitive stories or to those that may cause a loss of livelihood after graduation.”

Especially for a small-college newspaper, there is a way to strike a balance between journalistic integrity and compassion. While a few of those retweets may have broadened students’ perspectives about the admission process in some minor way, the cruelty to those prospective students and the pain that it may have caused them seems to outweigh such a small benefit. After all, each of the students who tweeted their disappointment about not receiving acceptance letters got a second message as well: “Retweeted by the Bowdoin Orient.”

In fact, one of the students later tweeted, “That horrible moment when Bowdoin re-tweeted me. #ihatemylife.” 

To give credit where credit is due, the Orient reporter who retweeted the responses replied very thoughtfully to the student. He identified himself as a student reporter rather than a Bowdoin official and promised that the Orient did not mean to cause any embarrassment by its retweet. Nevertheless, these tweets did little to enhance the knowledge or perspective of the Orient’s readership and should have never been re-published on the Orient’s feed in the first place.

Ultimately, this is the type of issue where the Orient’s editors can hide behind the fact that they have the right to publish such material. However, the decision to republish those students’ tweets was classless at best and cruel at worst, and I think it is fair for the Orient’s readership to demand higher standards from their campus news source. 

While expanding into different types of social media necessitates different policies, the Orient must be very careful to maintain the professionalism that has come to be expected of its print version. Adding insult to injury by retweeting those students’ disappointed reactions failed to live up to that standard.