- Chris Walker/Chicago Tribune/Tribune News Service via Getty Images
- Student journalists at Northwestern University published an editorial apologizing for basic reporting practices, including posting photographs of protests and using the campus directory to look up students’ phone numbers.
- The editorial spread across Twitter on Monday, sparking an uproar from many working journalists who argued that such reporting techniques are considered crucial to the profession.
- Some criticized the editorial as an instance of political correctness run amok – others decried the social media pile-on over a simple student journalism mistake.
- The Daily Northwestern’s editor-in-chief responded to the backlash in a Twitter thread, acknowledging that the editorial “over-corrected” in certain ways, but adding that the newspaper was trying to show empathy to marginalized groups on campus.
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Student journalists at Northwestern University sparked a backlash from professional journalists across the country after publishing a November 10 editorial apologizing for what appeared to be basic newsgathering practices.
The controversy began when the student newspaper, The Daily Northwestern, covered on-campus protests against a visit by former Attorney General Jeff Sessions. Not long after, the newspaper published an editorial apologizing for some of its reporting methods, which it said “hurt students.”
Among the offenses listed were posting photographs of the protest on Twitter, and using the campus directory to look up phone numbers of students who attended the events.
“Some protesters found photos posted to reporters’ Twitter accounts retraumatizing and invasive. Those photos have since been taken down,” the editorial said. It also described the interview requests as “an invasion of privacy” and said staff members have since learned “the correct way to reach out to students for stories.”
Professional journalists seized on the editorial, chiding the students for their apology
The techniques the editorial described are standard procedures for reporters, who regularly use public directories to contact potential sources, and who are frequently tasked with photographing and writing about public events.
But The Daily Northwestern’s editorial apologized for the way it went about its coverage, noting that some students had “voiced concerns.”
“Ultimately, The Daily failed to consider our impact in our reporting surrounding Jeff Sessions,” the editorial said. “We know we hurt students that night, especially those who identify with marginalized groups.”
Many journalists noted that the reporting techniques mentioned in the editorial are considered crucial newsgathering methods, chiding the newspaper for apologizing for them.
There’s a lot to comment on in this Daily Northwestern editorial, but apologizing for contacting people to ask if they’re willing to be interviewed? Regretting that you photographed protesters protesting in public? https://t.co/2GmEF4ZyZq
— Gregory Pratt (@royalpratt) November 11, 2019
How is it possible that a newspaper at what is allegedly a top journalism school would apologize for the basics of reporting? This is a travesty and an embarrassment. https://t.co/nM10LwQnaK
— Glenn Kessler (@GlennKesslerWP) November 12, 2019
A number of journalists also defended the students, arguing the controversy was overblown and that it was unfair for prominent, professional journalists to publicly pile on to young students. Some also said the student journalists deserved empathy and understanding for trying to build trust with marginalized campus groups and listen to their concerns.
One of only black students in history to hold his position, student journalist who makes incorrect decision based on sincere desire to not harm marginalized campus group is publicly decried by industry’s most powerful (white) journalists. Definitely a lesson to be learned here!
— Wesley (@WesleyLowery) November 12, 2019
The editor-in-chief responded, saying the editorial ‘over-corrected’
On Monday evening, the newspaper’s editor-in-chief, Troy Closson, responded to the criticisms in a Twitter thread, explaining that the publication stood by its reporting on the Sessions protests but acknowledging that the editorial “over-corrected” in certain aspects.
Closson mentioned that he was only the third black editor-in-chief to helm The Daily Northwestern and that the role came with a unique pressure.
“Being in this role and balancing our coverage and the role of this paper on campus with my racial identity – and knowing how our paper has historically failed students of color, and particularly black students, has been incredibly challenging to navigate,” he wrote.
He continued: “We aren’t unclear about our rights as a newspaper to cover student protest, but also understand the need to do so with empathy.”
/1 Yesterday, @thedailynu published a statement on our coverage of the Jeff Sessions event and protests on campus last week and I wanted to address the concerns that everyone has shared on Twitter.
— Troy Closson (@troy_closson) November 12, 2019
The dean of Northwestern’s journalism school said he was ‘deeply troubled by the vicious bullying and badgering’ the reporters received
On Tuesday, the dean of Northwestern University’s journalism school weighed in on the controversy, releasing a statement that vehemently defended the newspaper’s reporting.
“Like those student journalists, I, too, have been approached by several student activists who were angered by the fact that they and their peers were depicted on the various platforms of The Daily engaged in the very public act of protesting the Sessions speech,” Dean Charles Whitaker wrote. “I have explained to those activists that as Northwestern’s – and the city of Evanston’s – principal paper of record, The Daily had an obligation to capture the event, both for the benefit of its current audience as well as for posterity.”
He continued: “I have also offered that it is naïve, not to mention wrong-headed, to declare, as many of our student activists have, that The Daily staff and other student journalists had somehow violated the personal space of the protestors by reporting on the proceedings, which were conducted in the open and were designed, ostensibly, to garner attention.”
Whitaker said it’s true that irresponsible or unfair journalism can traumatize its subjects – but that was not what The Daily Northwestern students did.
He went on to say that the student journalists’ actions were “the kind of industrious reporting and information-gathering that we expect from enterprising reporters.” He added that they did not invade privacy or trespass or steal documents, but rather they sought to simply ask questions and take photos.
“As the dean of Medill, where many of these young journalists are trained, I am deeply troubled by the vicious bullying and badgering that the students responsible for that coverage have endured for the “sin” of doing journalism,” Whitaker wrote.
It’s not the first time in recent months that a student newspaper has come under fire for its journalism
- Brooks Craft/Corbis via Getty Images
The Northwestern controversy follows a similar episode involving Harvard’s student newspaper, The Harvard Crimson, and backlash from the student body over its reporting practices.
On-campus groups took issue with the publication for reaching out to an Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency spokesperson for comment regarding an “Abolish ICE” protest in September. Reaching out to government agencies for comment on articles involving criticism or allegations of wrongdoing is standard practice for journalists.
In the Crimson’s case, the newspaper’s president, Kristine Guillaume, reiterated the publication’s policy of treating all subjects in a story fairly by requesting comment.
“Fundamental journalistic values obligate The Crimson to allow all subjects of a story a chance to comment,” Guillaume wrote in a statement. “This policy demonstrates a commitment to ensuring that the individuals and institutions we write about have an opportunity to respond to criticisms in order to ensure a fair and unbiased story.”
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