"Disproportionate coverage"?

The relationship between the press and drinking societies has proved controversial over the years. Many students think that drinking societies receive a disproportionate and unfair press, while many think that their actions are reprehensible and should be reported upon accordingly. C+’s asked, “How do you think drinking societies and their activities are portrayed by the press?”

In response to this, there was a greater number of students who thought that the press report unfairly or very unfairly on drinking societies than fairly or very fairly. There appeared to be a general consensus amongst those who replied with ‘unfairly’ or ‘very unfairly’ that the press only ever report upon the negative aspects of drinking societies, such as when an instance of misogyny occurs, because that is the only time they are newsworthy.

One student wrote, “Those that are reported on probably deserve the bad press they receive, but as with anything, there are numerous societies that don’t behave appallingly, but of course this isn’t newsworthy, so isn’t reported. People tend to be mainly aware of raucous, infamous men-only societies, and take this to represent drinking societies as a whole.” Another student seemed to agree with this, saying, “I think the press tends to report mainly on the negative aspects of drinking societies, simply because they make much more interesting stories than the many incidents that happen which have no bad consequences.”

Most students agreed that the press tend to exacerbate the situation by reporting so frequently on Oxford drinking societies, with national papers picking up on stories and turning them into far bigger stories than they might otherwise have been. When the Black Cygnets ‘fox hunt’ story was reported upon by Cherwell and the OxStu last term, more than half a dozen national and international papers picked up on the story, including the Daily Mail, the Telegraph and the Huffington Post.

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The Daily Mail in particular was cited by students as guilty of sensationalism. As one student commented, “The Daily Mail is a pile of piss.”

Yet for one person, student journalism was the most damaging, uncovering stories which might be better left uncovered. He said, “Drinking societies are awful, elitist and shouldn’t still exist, but opportunist and sensationalist stories from student ‘journalists’ looking for something vaguely like news to entice the national press often create a far bigger problem for Outreach/The University’s reputation than the actual societies themselves.

“When stories like these get picked up by say, the Daily Mail, they are hugely damaging for access work and as much as drinking societies often deserve condemnation, I can’t help thinking it would sometimes be better if they were just ignored.”

However, some think that such extensive coverage is important, highlighting some of the problems which are caused by the activities and attitudes of some drinking societies. One student wrote, “I was so so so glad to see that the student press was highlighting problems within some drinking societies. I was absolutely horrified to read some of the stories about young, naive fresher girls being subject to drinking societies that subscribe to what I think is a sick, damaging and distorted image of women. Well done Cherwell and OxStu and keep at it!”

Another student agreed that drinking societies should be reported upon, saying, “The members of the drinking societies should be named and shamed in public. Why is it that wealth and status provides a cloak over reprehensible behaviour?”

Many people said that by covering controversial stories, the press makes members of drinking societies aware that they cannot act entirely free from scrutiny. One student told Cherwell, “It’s good that this investigation is being carried out – I am aware that student papers are often unwilling to report on these societies and hold people to account, due to fears over defamation.”

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Students are divided over how fairly Oxford drinking societies are treated in the press. 6.52% of students said that they were treated very fairly, 47% fairly, 43% unfairly, and 3% very unfairly. One student put the consensus simply: “Reporting can be salacious and gleeful, but is often sadly accurate.”