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That ‘clusterf–k’ headline: How UNC’s newspaper responded to a COVID ‘cluster’ on campus

Image courtesy of The Daily Tar Heel

Editors at UNC-Chapel Hill’s The Daily Tar Heel responded to multiple COVID-19 clusters on campus with an unprecedented editorial. The headline: UNC has a clusterfuck on its hands.

We emailed Anna Pogarcic, editor-in-chief of The DTH, to find out the story behind the unforgettable headline.

Since in-person classes began on August 10, coronavirus cases appeared in a residential hall, a fraternity house and private apartments. On Monday — one day after the editorial — UNC announced that all classes will transition to remote, effective Wednesday, August 19.

What prompted the ultimate decision to run this headline? Did you have any discussions or consultations about it?

Pogarcic: My opinion editor suggested it to me, and I thought it was the perfect way to describe what’s happening. There were so many questions surrounding the announcement of the clusters this weekend, which wasn’t helped by the University’s lack of transparency about exact numbers, that we felt this editorial warranted something outside of our usual style. I mean, people’s literal lives — our safety, our health — are at stake because of the decisions this institution and the UNC System are making.

I was unsure at first if it perhaps was too unprofessional, but it’s not our job as journalists to sugarcoat what’s going on.

What were some of the other contenders?

Pogarcic: Honestly, there weren’t any others. It was kind of one of those magical moments where an idea comes to you. Paige Masten, our opinion editor, was working on the piece when she shouted the idea across the newsroom, and we were pretty much all on board immediately.

Was this the first time that the DTH has used profanity in a headline?

Pogarcic: As far as I know, we’ve never used profanity in a headline before, but we have used it in articles or other elements of our coverage.

How has the reaction been on campus from students and faculty? What about online?

Pogarcic: I’ve been overwhelmed by the reaction, and everything I’ve seen so far has been positive. We’ve heard from current students, alumni, faculty and other readers on social media congratulating us for holding the University accountable. This editorial has by far been our most popular piece today and in recent memory.

Can you share why the headline is different for the online version?

Pogarcic: The online and print headlines were always different. We’ve gotten a few questions about it, and I want to make it clear that we didn’t change the online headline based on feedback. It’s our paper’s standard practice to have different headlines for print and online, and we thought we could switch it up for online by using a subhead instead.

What impact has this reporting had on donations to the Daily Tar Heel?

Pogarcic: We have gotten a few donations today based on the editorial and our other coverage from the weekend! I don’t have specific numbers, but our General Manager Erica Perel sent the editing staff a note this morning with about 10 comments from our donors.

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Jeffrey Hiday
Jeffrey Hiday
1 year ago

Awesome call. Not sure if the f-bomb has been dropped before, but we did run this as a front-page Carolina blue banner hed in 1982 after Michael Jordan and crew defeated Georgetown: “Damn We’re Good: NCAA Champs”

Michelle B Simmons
Michelle B Simmons
1 year ago

The feeling of this piece implies there is something wrong with using profanity. This is a global pandemic. I can think of no better time to use profanity. My undergrad is from one of the sisters of UN-C. I applaud this editorial.

Last edited 1 year ago by Michelle B Simmons
Andrew T
Andrew T
1 year ago

I would give this piece more credit than that. The tone implies there is something UNUSUAL with using profanity, which is true. I don’t read any implied criticism – the questions about feedback and donations are neutral phrased, and when the response is “very positive”, they let that stand without batting an eye. If anything, the question about whether they changed it for the online version is paraphrasing the people wondering if the online version was censored after the print run came out, which is a pro-profanity stance 🙂

Steven Johnson
Steven Johnson
1 year ago

I say the headline is right on… And, if and when/as other college campuses suffer the same fate; their newspapers might/should take a cue from the ‘The Daily Tar Heel’. And in my opinion should cuz “It Is What It Is.”

Last edited 1 year ago by Steven Johnson
Henry
Henry
1 year ago

Don’t understand “holding the university accountable ” . Seems like the students should be the ones held accountable for individual disregard of basic precautions.

Tony
Tony
1 year ago
Reply to  Henry

That would be like the government saying to it’s citizens, “don’t commit crimes!” and put no security in place or enforce penalties to prevent people from committing crimes. Of course students won’t practice social distancing unless the university puts strong incentives/penalties in place to prevent rule breaking. For in-school education to work, the system needs to be closer to a controlled environment system (think MLB/NHL) to prevent transmission from taking place. And guess what? it ain’t happening because no school wants to pay up to enforce the expensive protocols that are required to keep large groups of people safe.

Last edited 1 year ago by Tony
Phil Karasick
Phil Karasick
1 year ago
Reply to  Henry

Actually no, that’s complete nonsense and BS on your part. It’s the university administration, not the students, who need to be held accountable. There is absolutely no way to be safe using “basic precautions” when people are crammed together in close proximity in dormitories. And that’s not the students’ fault. It’s simply physically and literally impossible to maintain any form, at all, whatsoever of social distancing when 30 people are jammed together into a very small physical space. It simply and literally can’t be done. And, the administration knew that. Therefore, it shouldn’t have been tried at all. Jamming themselves… Read more »

Rudolph Houck
Rudolph Houck
1 year ago

The further decline of the English language. I began hearing similar language on the NYC subways in the 1980’s. The internet has accelerated the use of “bad” language. My theory is that use of Nazi images (not in this headline) is a way to express extreme feelings. So few words carry much weight any more. Nazi images still shock.

Mel Johansson
Mel Johansson
1 year ago
Reply to  Rudolph Houck

The English language is not “in decline,” any more than it has been for the centuries that pedants have bemoaned its deterioration.

In fact, English is undergoing a period of remarkable fecundity, facilitated largely by social media. Prepositional because, for example, or the deluge of new words like manspreading and humblebrag.

The concept of what is or isn’t unacceptable language changes over time, and that’s not a lamentable thing. I’m quite pleased, for example, that n****r, which was used quite commonly when I was a child, is now so taboo that it’s become literally unprintable.

Laurie
Laurie
1 year ago

Further evidence of the dumbing down of America.

Jahan Salehi
Jahan Salehi
1 year ago

Well said! Appropriate headline for a disastrous situation. The editors should be commended!

Mark King
Mark King
1 year ago

Yesterday’s online WSJ article announcing the shift to virtual classes cited 177 cases; the DTH editorial obviously got results. Go Heels!

Jj DunnJr.
Jj DunnJr.
1 year ago

I might have used “F**k”; but other than that, it prcisely described the situation. I would not describethis headline as “…profanity…” (your words), i would describe it as vernacular.
Respectfully,
Jack Dunn

Tom Galloway
Tom Galloway
1 year ago

No one seems to have seen what they also did there; there were four “clusters” on campus. So instead of just something like “F*ck, We’re So Screwed”, they went with “Clusterf*ck”. Extra points for cleverness (or happy accident, since the editor didn’t point this out in her explanation of the back story).

Ello
Ello
1 year ago

No need to sugarcoat but no need to be unprofessional either. Yep, those things are said in newsrooms all the time, but as a leader making decisions that reflect on the publication and the people behind it, an editor needs to step up the game and resist devaluing the product. F-bombs are fine for bloggers, but not for journalists. This comes off as a cheap grab for attention and personal attaboys from peers – almost sinking to the level of clickbait – instead of serious journalism.

Last edited 1 year ago by Ello
jdoskow
jdoskow
1 year ago

The word is in the real dictionary!
https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/clusterfuck

Rick Slott
Rick Slott
1 year ago

As always I love the DTH. The LSD the administrators used in college has finally affected their judgement. Awesome for the DTH to call them out. CF is not really profanity but rather an accurate assessment. Maybe FUBAR is the next headline?

Truth Teller
Truth Teller
1 year ago

If the UNC administrators had the same courage as those at Northeastern, where they dismiss students who party without masks and retain their tuition, they could easily stop the clusterfucks. UNC’s coddling of students is raising a generation with the same ethical standards as the Nazies. They think it is fine to kill off old people as long as they get to drink beer.