Northwestern student newspaper apologizes for the “harm” it caused students by covering Jeff Sessions’s visit to campus

November 13, 2019 • 11:00 am

Recently, two student newspapers from good schools have been involved in fracases about practices of journalism. First, the Harvard Crimson, as I reported earlier, had to defend its coverage of an anti-Immigration and Customs Enforcement demonstration after students, making false claims, went after the paper for “outing” students and creating an “unsafe” atmosphere on campus. In that case the Crimson was in the right when defending its coverage.

But in a new incident involving The Daily Northwestern, the student paper of our city’s Northwestern University, the paper is in the wrong. What happened is that the paper covered student protests about former Attorney General Jeff Sessions’s visit to campus on November 5. In that coverage, the newspaper quoted students, asked others for comments by looking them up on the campus directory and texting them, and took photos of the protests (the photographed students weren’t named by the paper).

That’s normal journalistic practice, but many Northwestern students—and yes, in this case they did act like “snowflakes”—objected to the invasion of their privacy on all three grounds. Remember, this was a public event where photography is allowed, and when you talk to a reporter and identify yourself without going “off the record,” your quote may appear in the paper. Finally, what is so wrong about being contacted by the paper, who used Northwestern’s student directory (available to the paper), to ask for comments? Nothing, as far as I can see.

But the paper, stung by the upset students and strong social-media reaction, not only took down the photographs that appeared in the original report, but also removed the name of a student quoted in that article.

Then they issued a groveling mea culpa apologizing to the students for photographing the protests, for quoting someone by name, using the student directory to “invade privacy,” and, in general, hurting students, traumatizing them, and endangering their safety with their report.

You can read the paper’s ridiculous bit of Maoistic self-flagellation by clicking on the screenshot below.

Here are some excerpts from that article (the bolding is mine):

On Nov. 5, former Attorney General Jeff Sessions spoke on campus at a Northwestern University College Republicans event. The Daily sent a reporter to cover that talk and another to cover the students protesting his invitation to campus, along with a photographer. We recognize that we contributed to the harm students experienced, and we wanted to apologize for and address the mistakes that we made that night — along with how we plan to move forward.

One area of our reporting that harmed many students was our photo coverage of the event. Some protesters found photos posted to reporters’ Twitter accounts retraumatizing and invasive. Those photos have since been taken down. On one hand, as the paper of record for Northwestern, we want to ensure students, administrators and alumni understand the gravity of the events that took place Tuesday night. However, we decided to prioritize the trust and safety of students who were photographed. We feel that covering traumatic events requires a different response than many other stories. While our goal is to document history and spread information, nothing is more important than ensuring 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. We failed to do that last week, and we could not be more sorry.

Good lord! That is an explicit statement that standard journalistic practices must be thrown overboard when “covering traumatic events.” (Seriously, is Sessions’s visit to campus “traumatic”?) It’s especially bad because the paper is published by a University that has one of the nation’s premier schools of journalism.

The mea culpa goes on, and gets ever worse:

Some students also voiced concern about the methods that Daily staffers used to reach out to them. Some of our staff members who were covering the event used Northwestern’s directory to obtain phone numbers for students beforehand and texted them to ask if they’d be willing to be interviewed. We recognize being contacted like this is an invasion of privacy, and we’ve spoken with those reporters — along with our entire staff — about the correct way to reach out to students for stories. . . .

I wonder what the correct way is? Newspaper regularly phone sources asking for comments.

And seriously—an invasion of privacy? But the journalistic penitentes continue with their apology:

. . . Ultimately, The Daily failed to consider our impact in our reporting surrounding Jeff Sessions. We know we hurt students that night, especially those who identify with marginalized groups. According to the Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics, “Ethical journalism treats sources, subjects, colleagues and members of the public as human beings deserving of respect.”

It’s not clear how they hurt students, or why marginalized groups were especially endangered. (It may be relevant that editor Troy Closson is an African-American). I suppose that they’re thinking that ICE might scrutinize the photos looking for undocumented students, but I seriously doubt that would happen, as it would take too much work with no payoff. And they apparently feared retribution from the University, but that doesn’t look like it’s going to happen. At any rate, if you engage in prohibited disruptive activity in public, you have to take the consequences. It’s called “civil disobedience.”

Finally, we get the obligatory promise by the paper to reform by deep-sixing its journalistic standards, with the editorial signed by a whole panoply of the paper’s editors:

Going forward, we are working on setting guidelines for source outreach, social media and covering marginalized groups. As students at Northwestern, we are also grappling with the impact of Tuesday’s events, and as a student organization, we are figuring out how we can support each other and our communities through distressing experiences that arise on campus.

. . . We hope we can rebuild trust that we weakened or lost last week. We understand that this will not be easy, but we are ready to undertake the reform and reflection necessary to become a better paper.

Troy Closson, Editor in Chief
Catherine Henderson, Print Managing Editor
Kristina Karisch, Print Managing Editor
Peter Warren, Print Managing Editor
Christopher Vazquez, Digital Managing Editor and Diversity and Inclusion Chair
Sneha Dey, Diversity and Inclusion Chair and Web Editor
Evan Robinson-Johnson, Photo Editor
Amy Li, Campus Editor

The objections to this ridiculous editorial began with the many comments (now up to 474) after the paper’s mea culpa. Here are just two:

 

But there has been a lot more pushback—not just from other journalists, but from Northwestern University itself. Here, for example, is an excellent statement and critique issued yesterday by the Dean of Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism:

An excerpt, which is notable for trying to understand why people behaved as they did:

But let me be perfectly clear, the coverage by The Daily Northwestern of the protests stemming from the recent appearance on campus by former Attorney General Jeff Sessions was in no way beyond the bounds of fair, responsible journalism. The Daily Northwestern is an independent, student-run publication. 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.

. . . The Daily had an obligation to capture the event, both for the benefit of its current audience as well as for posterity. 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.

. . . But I patently reject the notion that our students have no right to report on communities other than those from which they hail, and I will never affirm that students who do not come from marginalized communities cannot understand or accurately convey the struggles of those populations. And, unlike our young charges at The Daily, who in a heartfelt, though not well-considered editorial, apologized for their work on the Sessions story, I absolutely will not apologize for encouraging our students to take on the much-needed and very difficult task of reporting on our life and times at Northwestern and beyond.

I understand why The Daily editors felt the need to issue their mea culpa. They were beat into submission by the vitriol and relentless public shaming they have been subjected to since the Sessions stories appeared. I think it is a testament to their sensitivity and sense of community responsibility that they convinced themselves that an apology would affect a measure of community healing.

I might offer, however, that their well-intentioned gesture sends a chilling message about journalism and its role in society. . .

It goes on, but it’s a very good response. That is a dean with a spine, one who stood up to social-media shaming by his community. Read the whole thing if you can. (Note that the newspaper is independent and is not overseen by the University or by its school of journalism.)

The Chicago Tribune published this piece:

Just two excerpts:

The response from fellow journalists, both in the Daily’s comment boards and on social media, was vociferous, calling the move “embarrassing.” They pointed out that if students who were contacted for interviews didn’t want to take part, they only had to say no; that people who partake in public protests surrender their right to privacy; and that the journalists covering the protests did nothing wrong and should never apologize for reporting the news.

And some empathy from faculty. I wish I could be so charitable, but it seems to me that by the time students are in college, they should know how journalism works. Is their ignorance due to the fact that many of them never read a newspaper? Or do they know how journalism works but want to change that so they get the kind of coverage they want?

Kathleen Bartzen Culver, professor and director of the Center for Journalism Ethics at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, said faculty must help students understand the consequences of participating in a public demonstration, as well as the value of journalism. They must also teach young journalists about earning the trust of the people whose stories they tell.

“The practices we see as normal inside, if they feel extractive to the people who are affected by them, that’s something we have to be very worried about because it can truly damage trust,” Culver said. “Most of the journalists I work with are in this to serve the public interest. I think they should open their eyes to the idea that maybe the public always doesn’t believe that.”

Finally, the Washington Post devoted a very long piece to the controversy:

Two quotes from that piece:

“Something we thought about a lot this week is how challenging it is to be student journalists who are reporting about other students,” Troy Closson, the Daily’s editor in chief and a senior at the Medill School, told The Washington Post. “We’re thinking about what our role looks like specifically as student journalists who have to cover this, but at the same time we have to go to class with those students tomorrow.”

Well, by all means abandon the standards of journalism to remain in the good graces of your peers! If you don’t have the moxie to print the facts, then don’t become an editor, I have little sympathy for Closson’s view, though I can understand that he felt shell-shocked by the reaction, which extended to major newspapers throughout the country.  More from the Post:

The backlash to the editorial was swift. It started with professional journalists blasting the paper on Twitter, questioning the student reporters’ decisions to shield protesters in their coverage.

“This is called reporting,” wrote Washington Post reporter Amy Brittain on Twitter. “Why are you apologizing for it? Mind-boggling to read this editorial from student journalists who attend one of the top schools for journalism in the country.”

Other reporters raised concerns about the public’s understanding of how journalists work, and how allowing people to influence information-gathering could damage their ability to report.

“I don’t doubt the sincerity of these student journalists,” tweeted Los Angeles Times reporter Matt Pearce. “But I worry that if journalists keep ceding ground on when it is acceptable to do basic reporting, we eventually play into the hands of powerful interests who would love to criminalize journalism.”

Indeed!

Finally, here’s a sarcastic letter to the Northwestern paper by Chicago Sun-Times writer (and obituary specialist) Neil Steinberg, who went to their school of journalism.

Steinberg’s piece starts with this sarcastic header:

WARNING! THE FOLLOWING CONTAINS GRAPHIC EXPRESSIONS OF RIDICULE, PLUS IMAGES OF NAKED DISGUST REGARDING BELOVED UNDERGRADUATE PIETIES, AND SO MIGHT NOT BE APPROPRIATE FOR EMOTIONALLY FRAGILE INHABITANTS OF WILDLY OVERPRICED UNIVERSITIES WITH HABITUALLY DEFEATED FOOTBALL TEAMS.

And ends this way:

Maybe I’m behind the times. With newspapers fading, maybe demand for skills such as asking questions then sharing the result and taking the consequences has also faded. Perhaps Medill [JAC: Northwestern’s  highly ranked school of journalism] now emphasizes turning out equivocating corporate shills and candor-challenged public spokespeople to produce the kind of limp, pathetic, moral abdication offered by the staff of The Daily Northwestern. Maybe it’ll someday become a marketing tool and point of pride for all involved.

But I doubt it.

Thanks for listening. Go Cats!

Are we now seeing the beginning of conflicts that involve students not understanding how journalism works, or trying, by pressure from social media, to influence how media covers their activities? At least the Harvard Crimson does understand how journalism should work, but many Harvard and Northwestern students don’t agree.

h/t: Cate

13 thoughts on “Northwestern student newspaper apologizes for the “harm” it caused students by covering Jeff Sessions’s visit to campus

  1. “You can’t honestly believe that groups on one end of the political spectrum somehow deserve more protection than on the other end.”

    That is exactly what many people believe. For a long time now many in the media have believed that journalism is not about reportage but advocacy. Identity politics are not about justice and equality, but about exclusion of non-protected classes. Put the two together, and you have journalism as the enemy of defined groups.

    1. And things are getting markedly worse each year, or so it seems. If these students lived in Germany in the late 1920s, would they not want to even KNOW about the rise of the National Socialists? How can you combat that which you don’t know about, if the media arbitrarily ignore certain people and groups?

  2. I really hope that:
    Troy Closson, Editor in Chief
    Catherine Henderson, Print Managing Editor
    Kristina Karisch, Print Managing Editor
    Peter Warren, Print Managing Editor
    Christopher Vazquez, Digital Managing Editor and Diversity and Inclusion Chair
    Sneha Dey, Diversity and Inclusion Chair and Web Editor
    Evan Robinson-Johnson, Photo Editor
    Amy Li, Campus Editor
    never ever find a job in any media in the Galaxy.

    1. I suspect that, if they are students at the Medill School of Journalism, which is highly probable, they may find themselves being told to transfer to different courses or universities.

  3. When I was a student, back in the 1980’s, we had protests for various reasons, but the protest organisers always considered it a brilliant idea to get the local papers to cover the protest. The thinking was that there is no point in protesting if you are going to keep it secret.

    I guess what has changed is that you can get your message out without the involvement of traditional media now.

  4. Is this not the Barbra Streisand effect in full flight. The snowflake students have brought a freekin storm to the protest and has not the paper got it’s best story of the year. Well done for all the wrong reasons.

  5. And that is called paying the Dane-geld;
    But we’ve proved it again and again,
    That if once you have paid him the Dane-geld
    You never get rid of the Dane.

  6. Let’s see: the protesters feel unsafe when the press takes note of their protest, from which it follows that the best kind of protest would be one that is entirely secret.
    But wait, a fully invisible protest would not work very well as protest—so what they must really want is a completely anonymous protest. Like, uhhh, Facebook.

    So, there we have the explanation for the rising generation’s curious posture. It is not really due to their experience of being helicopter-parented, as Jon Haidt suggests. Instead, it is due to their having taken Facebook as the model for everything.

    One other feature of the student paper’s Mea Culpa should not escape notice. Two of the signers are identified as “Diversity and Inclusion Chair”. One cannot help suspecting that even a Diversity and Inclusion End Table would busy itself worrying about such things as journalists actually interviewing people.

  7. Cognitive dissonance is violence.

    Every person suffering from a psychotic delusional disorder understands this, which is why they become violent when confronted with the fact that they are not really Napoleon or that their neighbors are not secretly poisoning their water.

    It is ableist to suppose that the way non-psychotic people handle cognitive dissonance is superior to the way people with psychotic thought disorders respond to cognitive dissonance, and universities owe it to the mentally ill community to affirm that cognitive dissonance is violence, and to respond violently to those threatening the cognitive bubble.

    The Soviet experiment failed because it simply transformed society into an extended prison system relying on slave labor. The true revolution will come when society is organized along the lines of a totalized insane asylum, the true safe space. Our Universities are the bold vanguard, but they need to employ a team of orderlies to restrain and drug disrupters.

  8. I applaud the apology, but I certainly hope that the school newspaper provided medical care for the student injuries caused by their coverage. It would probably require life long medical care to mitigate the horrific trauma.

  9. The students aren’t “snowflakes”, they’re bullies.
    And I absolutely condemn the paper’s editors for caving in and apologizing. Every time you give in to these people, you further embolden them. If they can’t deal with people saying mean things about them on social media, they shouldn’t be running a paper. I’m sick of everybody making excuses for people who regularly enable these kind of mobs.

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