What Northwestern student journalists got right


The editorial staff of The Daily Northwestern, the student newspaper at Northwestern University, made everyone unhappy with the paper's response to a protest that took place when Jeff Sessions visited campus on Nov. 5.

First, students participating in the protest accused the paper of engaging in "trauma porn" after a reporter tweeted photos of a confrontation between police and protesters outside the building where Sessions was speaking. Publishing the photos was seen as an invasion of privacy, along with publishing the names of protesters and using phone numbers listed in the student directory to try to get comments.

Editors of the paper took down the photos and made a public apology for contributing to "the harm students experienced."

In the apology, they confessed a desire to cover important events but to above all ensure "that our fellow students feel safe — and in situations like this, that they are benefitting from our coverage rather than being actively harmed by it."

Professional journalists then publicly chided the staff for apologizing when their conduct had been well within the bounds of what reporters do every day. Most pointed out that an expectation of privacy was ridiculous when students chose to carry out their protest in a public place. 

Charles Whitaker, dean of Northwestern's Medill School of Journalism, shot back with a statement in which he called out both student activists for "waging war on our students on social media — threatening them both physically and emotionally" and professional journalists who were so quick to jump on their high horse — "Give the young people a break. I know you feel that you were made of sterner stuff and would have the fortitude and courage of your conviction to fend off the campus critics. But you are not living with them through this firestorm..."

Barbara Allen, the managing editor of poynter.org and a former college media professional, pointed out that college newspapers are where young journalists are supposed to make mistakes and learn from them. She also issued a call for today's journalists to share mistakes they made when they were starting out that helped shape them.

Dan Balz of the Washington Post tweeted that instead of criticizing the paper's staff, "we all need to help explain to other students the basic practices and values of good journalism and why it matters."

The editorial board of the Chicago Sun Times put it more bluntly, stating that those from the left and young adults "would suppress full and honest reporting out of an overabundance of concern for hurt feelings, an unwillingness to accept that free speech cuts both ways and a refusal to accept how real journalism must work."

Apologizing gave protesters an unrealistic expectation of how such an incident will play out after they graduate. Professional journalists will not hesitate to post photos of a protest or backtrack because those who participated are afraid that they will face consequences at work.   While we do believe that the student journalists at The Daily Northwestern did not act irresponsibly with their coverage of the protest, perhaps those of us who get paid to do the job every day could learn something from what they did.

Americans' trust in mass media now sits at 41 percent. When Gallup first measured trust in the mass media in 1972, that figure was 68 percent.

In a time when most readers have lost all understanding of the term "fake news" and think all reporters engage in the practice on a regular basis, we do ourselves no favors when we are slow to respond to justified criticism or apologize when we have made real mistakes. 

Discussions about how we respond to concerns that have been raised about some of our reporting throughout the year are ongoing at the Daily Mountain Eagle. Whether it is a media literacy problem or poor execution on our part, we want to learn what we can from each situation and do better in the future.

We can't applaud the apology as written, but we can applaud the students for attempting to respond to the criticism and show respect for their readers.

— The Daily Mountain Eagle