AJR  Features
From AJR,   February/March 2012

Bouncing Back from an Internet Drubbing   

A student journalist reflects on the outpouring of vitriol triggered by her anti-tattoo column. Tues., February 7, 2012

By Carl Straumsheim
Carl Straumsheim (@cfstraumsheim) is a graduate student at the Philip Merrill College of Journalism.     

"I woke up today and had 938 hate mails, 646 nasty Facebook comments, and dozens of mean-spirited tweets."

In the five days before Lisa Khoury, 19, wrote this introduction to a follow-up to her first ever op-ed column an anti-tattoo article she had been called "ignorant," "worthless," "brainwashed," "classless," "disgusting," "hypocritical" and "judgmental" (and much, much more!) by Internet commenters from around the world.

Initially, Khoury says she thought the piece would be her last. "I was considering taking down the article," she says. "I didn't know what to do with myself. I just started reading all of the comments and taking them personally."

But instead of announcing her early retirement from journalism in the wake of the pummeling, Khoury says the experience has left her feeling "blessed."

"As a journalist, I just feel fortunate," she says. "I've experienced something not all journalists will ever experience in their careers.... I'm just really grateful for this entire experience, because as extreme as it was, and as harshly as I was put down, how much more of a life lesson can you ask for in journalism?"

Khoury, a sophomore at the University at Buffalo, served her time as a hard news reporter for the Spectrum a first-semester requirement for all new journalism students. She pounced at the opportunity to write an opinion article.

"I think the approach I took was, 'How can I win this argument? How do I take my mentality about how I feel about tattoos personally and express that on paper?' " Khoury says.

Khoury's "Why Put a Bumper Sticker on a Ferrari?" and its counterpoint, "Artful, Artificial Beauty Marks," were posted on the Spectrum's Web site on Saturday, January 28, after a newsroom argument on tattoos led the two sides to make their differences public. That Monday, the articles appeared side-by-side in the newspaper's print edition.

Lisa Khoury (Handout Photo)

Khoury shaped her argument around natural beauty, suggesting women should try temporary fixes workout regimens, a new wardrobe or hairstyle instead of more durable changes like body art.

But interspersed were jabs at her opponent's position.

If you steer clear of tattoos, "you won't find yourself in a rut when your future grandkids ask you what's up with the angel wings on your upper back as you're in the middle of giving them a life lesson on the importance of values and morals," she wrote. "God knows the last thing this world needs is another generation of kids questioning their basic values and morals."

In two days, the article received over 25,000 hits a record number for the Spectrum. The comments section lit up with allegations that Khoury was guilty of sexism and bigotry. The newsroom even received hate mail from Australia.

"This piece tried so hard to come off empowering to women but failed miserably. In fact, it's degrading and sexist," wrote an anonymous commenter. "Moron," was the verdict of "Proper grown up."

By Tuesday night, the Spectrum's editors realized the column had gone viral.

"They said, 'Lisa, we just wanted to give you a heads up: There are some nasty things online on your column. Don't take anything personally,' " Khoury says. "That's when I went online and checked my e-mail.... Between Tuesday and Friday, it was like nonstop. Every time I pressed 'Inbox,' there were a few more."

Finally, she stopped checking.

"I didn't mean that getting a tattoo means you don't have morals and you don't have values," Khoury says. "Society as a whole is losing traditional values. Is that a bad thing? That's up for debate. But I personally choose to stay traditional."

On Thursday, both Khoury and Editor-in-Chief Matthew Parrino published responses to the torrent of negative feedback Khoury's column had attracted. Parrino offered a measured apology to tattoo fans offended by her piece, but said he does not regret publishing the article, even though he personally disagrees with Khoury's position. "Since we're a college newspaper, a lot of the topics we talk about are sometimes very controversial," he says.

Parrino, who has written for the Spectrum for four years (nine months of that time as editor-in-chief), says he is proud of his publication's penchant for exploring controversial topics. A glance at the Spectrum's Web site shows "Sex Positions 101" and "Weed: It's Bad Right?" ranking among its most popular articles.

Parrino also says his apology was not meant to discredit Khoury. "I will always apologize whenever any of our readers feel attacked, offended or hurt in any way," he says. "No matter what gets printed, our goal is not to hurt anybody. Our goal is to inform to report."

Khoury praised Parrino for the way he reacted to the fallout. "As an editor-in-chief and as a fellow journalist, he handled things in such a professional way," she says. "It was respectable, it was professional, and that itself made me feel like this was going to be OK."

Khoury, too, apologized, but she also accused her critics of not seeing her argument in light of its counterpoint.

People, she wrote, "were taking certain lines out of context, and it was no longer a conversation, but an appalling backlash. For the record, not a single mean comment came from readers of the paper... It all came from outside. And it all came directly to me."

In their responses, both young journalists reflected on the episode.

"It's a life lesson in what words can do, what the Internet can do, and most of all a lesson for me to never do what other people did to me," Khoury wrote.

Parrino added, "Be careful what you write. It can destroy you."

With the controversy receding, Khoury says the experience has inspired her to pursue a career in journalism. "For each news story I'm going to put out now, I need to know that my audience is bigger," she says. "A lot of positivity has come out of this."