The Students Behind That ‘Clusterfuck’ Headline Want You to Focus on Literally Anything Else

The college editors say they’re still waiting on answers from the University of North Carolina

UNC Chapel Hill student newspaper clipping. Headline is “UNC has a clusterfuck on its hands”
Photo illustration, image source: Paige Masten

It’s been a busy few days for journalists at The Daily Tar Heel, the student newspaper at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. At the start of last week, Opinion Editor Paige Masten yelled across the newsroom to ask whether it was all right to use the word “clusterfuck” in a print headline describing the university’s pandemic response.

“Go for it,” Anna Pogarcic, editor-in-chief, yelled back. “Print news, raise hell.” The next day, the newspaper front page read: “UNC has a clusterfuck on its hands.”

The student journalists at the paper had been covering the university’s rocky re-opening plan for months, and they even broke the initial story exposing the clusters of positive Covid cases on campus. Ever since the editorial ran, The Daily Tar Heel’s work has gone viral, drawing attention from the National Press Club and Anderson Cooper.

Masten and Pogarcic caught up with GEN this week to talk about the weird fixation with their headline, the next steps in their reporting, and how The Daily Tar Heel hopes to diversify.

GEN: So tell me about your decision to run with the clusterfuck headline and everything that led up to that moment?

Paige Masten: I started planning the editorial on Friday when we found out about the first two Covid-19 clusters on campus. I just knew it was something we’re going to have to report on and people were going to be frustrated and angry. We’re all students. So we are feeling the very same things and we’re affected by the news as well.

The headline was such a good play on words because the university was calling it a “cluster” and it was such a terribly handled situation, which is what clusterfuck means. I feel like they were just kind of asking for it. And it was too perfect not to run with.

Anna Pogarcic: Media ethics people are asking about what kind of debate happened in the newsroom for this. There wasn’t. It really was just that Paige had a great idea with that wording and the headline. I was like: I mean, yeah, definitely, this is a mess. Go for it.

I’ve seen some comments that using the curse word was lazy. And I just want people who are asking us to consider their own situations. Are you sitting in your home office right now writing this email to us while we are students who have been essentially forced to come back to our campus and are asking our university questions, but not getting answers?

What was the response like? It’s been a really crazy news cycle.

Pogarcic: Monday, when the editorial ran, was the best day on our website in its 30-year history. We got more views than we did when the Silent Sam Confederate monument was torn down by protesters in 2018.

Masten: For some people who are visiting our website now, the editorial caught their attention. But I don’t want them to fixate on it, because I don’t think it’s important. What the newsroom is doing is equally, if not more important. They’ve been reporting on the pandemic since March when the university first shut down. That has not changed. And our reporters have been so relentless in fighting for the answers. I don’t think they’ve really gotten the credit they deserve. If it took using the word “fuck” for people to actually pay attention to the incredible work that our reporters are doing, then great.

How are you anticipating these next few weeks to go in terms of coronavirus coverage?

Pogarcic: We’ve been covering this for months, and especially since UNC released its roadmap for the fall in May. We’ve been questioning them and trying to force them on answers. But so much of the reason the university has received pushback is because students, faculty, and campus workers have also been calling on them to implement safety measures and even to switch classes to being remote for the first five weeks. The university updated its Covid-19 dashboard and we saw the positivity rate jump from 3% to 13% based on on-campus testing. So that’s why they went online.

But in terms of our coverage, we’re really fortunate. A lot of our editing staff is able to live off-campus. I’m not sure what their plans are now that courses are going online, but even if they choose to go back to their hometowns, we were all separated during the summer when we were holding the university accountable. And if we have to do it again, we will. Because we’re students, we’re in a unique position where we can take that experience and then hold UNC accountable. We think our audience deserves this information and we’ll do whatever it takes.

What’s one thing someone who doesn’t live in Chapel Hill should know about?

Masten: I’ve gotten so much positive feedback for doing the editorial. But the activists and the workers who do this every single day, they get nothing. They get less than nothing, because a lot of times they’re having to risk their health, and their lives and their jobs in order to do it. And the majority of them are Black and brown students. But I have the full support of my job and I have mostly the full support of the community. The real story is them and their push for justice, not just in this context, but in so many others. I wish there were more people telling that story.

So what is The Daily Tar Heel having to do in terms of making sure there’s people from all backgrounds, all races, orientations reflected in your coverage?

Pogarcic: UNC is a predominantly white institution. Our newsroom is majority white, a lot of middle-class people, straight people. And some of this is just the nature of the fact UNC looks like that. But a lot of it is because the people who are in power in our newsroom are of those identities and the effects of that trickle-down when they have blind spots. Every editor who’s run the paper in the past four years has promised to make a difference when it comes to diversity. But we’ve never actually sat down and had a conversation in the newsroom about why we have this problem and what we can do to make it better. We know we’re not going to make systemic change in a year, but we at least want to lay a foundation and set that precedent so that the leadership team next year can continue the work because the attitude can do good reporting. We can’t do our reporting if we don’t look like the people we’re trying to serve.

This interview has been condensed and edited for length and clarity.

Writing about climate, culture & comida wherever I go. Work in: GEN, Bitch Media, VICE, Jezebel, and then some. Medium’s resident Gen Z kid.

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