10/09/2012 11:00 am ET Updated Dec 09, 2012

Unethical Reporting on UT's 'Butt-chugging' Scandal

Sometimes journalists act irresponsibly, and the events of last week are an excellent case study.

Journalists are required by duty to report only verifiable fact, but at times that can be burdensome. It's not difficult to avoid outright lies; those are usually easy to spot. The more challenging task lies in avoiding dangerous implications that can extend from otherwise truthful information.

The first reports regarding last week's PIKE scandal emanated from local news sources that used officer suspicion to peg the victim's near-death on a bout of suspected "butt-chugging." These officer allegations, while completely unverifiable to date, have severely crippled the reputation of not only one individual, but of UT as a whole. The split-second decision of some journalists to print the suspicions of investigators incited a media frenzy that negatively impacted us all.

Let's recap the material those journalists had on hand at the time to justify publication.

When the first stories began to emerge online, news outlets had access to a statement from the Knoxville Police Department's Public Information Officer. His report stated that "upon extensive questioning it is believed that members of the fraternity were utilizing rubber tubing inserted into their rectums as a conduit for alcohol."

Notice the keywords "believe" and "members of the fraternity." That's police-speak for "maybe" and "perhaps the victim was 'butt-chugging,' too."

Given that fact set, I remain unconvinced that it was ethically responsible to immediately report not only those allegations, but the name of the UT student associated with the incident. Experienced journalists should know how to handle such inflammatory subject matter with care. On Monday night at The Daily Beacon, my editorial staff furiously tried to verify the allegations and speak with sources close to the incident, but for obvious reasons this was difficult to do. We made the decision to refrain from publishing the story, given the scarce information available at the time.

I'm proud of that decision.

Since the investigation by UTPD was still underway and no cause of the victim's injury had been verified, it seems egregious that any news organization would expose an individual (and an entire university) to public ridicule with so little indisputable fact. The potentially defamatory effects of such claims requires extreme caution in reporting.

The official UTPD report released on Friday provides no trace of physical evidence substantiating this claim. Evidence may come to light that verifies the "butt-chugging" theory, but as of now only vague assertions by investigators lend it credibility. Further, this theory was developed after "extensive questioning," but the public has been provided with no formal record of the witnesses' testimony.

My intent in this column is not to debate the veracity of these allegations. Rather, I take issue with the fact that news sources used seemingly paltry information based on officer conjecture to substantiate sweeping accusations about a life-threatening situation.

Right now, this entire sordid affair boils down to several charges of underage drinking. Thanks to the publication of suspicion, though, our campus has been subjected to national mockery. At least some local news outlets got their five seconds of fame.

Blair Kuykendall is a senior in College Scholars. She can be reached at

This post was originally published in The Daily Beacon.