Advice to Young Professionals: Think Before You Act

Sorry on Australia Day-sky writing © by butupa

Abby Spudich, former managing editor of University of Missouri-Columbia student newspaper The Maneater, learned earlier this month that, in some instances, saying “I’m sorry” isn’t enough. And in the age of the Internet and social media, the digital trail that results from a lack of sound judgment can have far-reaching implications that, at times, can be more damaging than the mistake itself.

The Back Story

Spudich issued a written apology to address widespread backlash that occurred as a result of the newspaper’s April Fools’ edition, which included a new name (The Carpeteater) as well as other offensive content including columns on slut-shaming and gay stereotypes.

The Maneater committed a grievous error in judgment regarding the content of the April Fools’ edition published Tuesday,” Spudich wrote. “I take responsibility for that error. This edition of The Maneater was incredibly offensive and potentially damaging to the social climate at MU, and I want to take this opportunity to express our sincere apologies.”

Despite offers to seek staff training from on-campus resources like the Women’s Center and LGBTQ Resource Center, as well as host an open forum to discuss the effects of derogatory terms on society, Spudich later resigned her position as managing editor. Editor-in-chief Travis Cornejo also stepped down, although, per staff tradition, Cornejo was not involved with the April Fools’ issue.

At one point, the University of Missouri had considered possible expulsion as further punishment; that student conduct investigation was later abandoned.

The Aftermath (And Lessons Learned)

Now, not only will Spudich and Cornejo continue to deal with any immediate aftermath in the wake of their resignations; there’s also a rather lengthy digital trail that’s been left as the result of the story’s evolution.

And that’s the cost of making a visible mistake in today’s world—whether on blogs, social networking sites or other platforms, a digital record will likely be created that details not only the mistake itself, but related commentary, too.

Of course, Spudich certainly isn’t the first student journalist to make a mistake that resulted in the loss of a position. Devon Edwards, former managing editor of Pennsylvania State University’s Onward State, resigned after prematurely tweeting the death of head football coach Joe Paterno. Chelsea Diana, former editor-in-chief of Boston University’s independent student newspaper, The Daily Free Press, resigned as a result of April Fools’ content that “appeared to mock rape and drug crimes,” according to The Huffington Post.

The question that remains in all of these cases, however, is what sort of future these student journalists will have in their preferred industry. Sure, we all make mistakes—and some of them are much more public than others. Yet that’s a consequence of today’s digital world. Should a prospective employer opt to Google any of the aforementioned student journalists, what will they find?

As reported by the Columbia Missourian, Spudich “is reflecting on whether to pursue a journalism career in the future. ‘People have been supportive in telling me that I shouldn’t give up,’ Spudich said. ‘But, I am hoping to consult with an unbiased person working in journalism now to give me an unbiased opinion on whether or not they would choose to hire me after this.’”

Spudich’s experience—as well as the other aforementioned examples—provides an important lesson for any young professional, regardless of the industry. In this day and age, mistakes can easily—and quickly—be documented (and magnified) on blogs and within the social space. The resulting digital trail can have an adverse impact on a career before it’s even really started, which is why it’s increasingly important to think carefully before you act—especially if you’re in a leadership role. Sure, mistakes can—and do—provide invaluable learning opportunities. But when that education comes at the potential expense of a future career, is the lesson worth the price?