How it was told
Media hysteria went into overdrive on November 19 with reports that lecturers at Leeds Trinity University had banned lecturers from using capital letters when setting assignments.
The reports stemmed from a leaked memo that requested lecturers to “generally, avoid using capital letters for emphasis” and to “avoid a tone that stresses the difficulty or the high-stakes nature of the task”.
And that triggered an angry response in The Daily Express, which accused students of being snowflakes in the print headline “When it comes to snowflake student rules, letters ban caps the lot” while adopting an ironic approach online with “University lecturers told DON’T USE CAPS as it frightens students”.
The claim was repeated in The Metro online, under the headline, “Lecturers banned from using capital letters to avoid upsetting students” as well as in The Daily Telegraph and The Mirror. Predictably, it spread like wildfire on social media.
The Mail Online’s coverage focused on Piers Morgan, who could not resist getting in on the act too – venting to Good Morning Britain viewers that, “the world’s gone nuts” before slamming students for not living in the “real world”.
The story also made waves abroad in New Zealand, Australia and the US.
It’s not true. Following the rush of headlines, Leeds Trinity staff came out and dismissed the story as a complete misrepresentation.
The university’s vice-chancellor Margaret House issued an immediate response outlining that the leaked memo was about “sharing best practice” and not a new policy intended to sideline capital letters.
“We follow national best practice teaching guidelines and the memo cited in the press is guidance from a course leader to academic staff, sharing best practice from the latest teaching research to inform their teaching,” she said.
“For every assignment, academic staff have an ‘unpacking’ session with students so the students are clear on what is expected.
The majority of universities do this. It is also about good communication and consistent style. For example, it is best practice not to write in all capital letters regardless of the sector.”
The i newspaper was alone when it came to national media coverage of House’s debunking on November 20, reporting on the clarification in their “No, Leeds Trinity University hasn’t banned capital letters to avoid frightening anxious students” article. And that saw Leeds Trinity journalism lecturer Rebecca Whittington launch a scathing attack on the nationals in a blog post. However, she insists that some good has come from the whole episode – it has acted as a useful learning experience for students.
“While the ‘story’ has been recognised as a non-story by other members of the industry, some kind of Brexit-fatigue perhaps appears to be fanning the flames of a tale which, if interrogated, would fall flat on its backside,” she wrote.
“Our students are not ‘snowflakes’ – that’s a derogatory term which shuts conversation down and fails to give credit or respect to the voices of young people. It’s a bullish label which belongs in the playground and minimises reasoned debate.
“Our students are bright, intelligent, interesting people who know a hack from a handsaw. While flimsy journalism might manage to get some sparks out of these already dying embers, they crack on with the real job at hand; getting a degree and making the most of every exciting opportunity given to them,” Whittington continued.
“They [Leeds Trinity journalism students] have had one of the best training experiences yet; knowing when a story is a non-story and knowing it will be tomorrow’s fish-and-chip wrappers – if you can still make such a thing from clickbait tabloids and their ilk.”
Illustration: Miles Cole