Northwestern student journalists apologized for photographing protesters. Then came backlash from professionals.
"Something we thought about a lot this week is how challenging it is to be student journalists who are reporting about other students."
On Sunday, Northwestern University’s student newspaper published an editorial apologizing for “mistakes” the staff said it had made while covering two protests during former attorney general Jeff Sessions’s visit to campus on Nov. 5.
Tweeting out photos of students protesting Sessions and later using a campus directory to call some of those demonstrators for interviews.
“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,” the Daily Northwestern‘s editorial board wrote. “Some protesters found photos posted to reporters’ Twitter accounts retraumatizing and invasive. Those photos have since been taken down.”
But dozens of professional journalists argued on Monday that the apology itself was the true mistake – an error compounded by the fact that the college is home to the celebrated Medill School of Journalism.
“There’s a lot to comment on in this Daily Northwestern editorial,” Chicago Tribune reporter Gregory Pratt tweeted on Monday, “but apologizing for contacting people to ask if they’re willing to be interviewed? Regretting that you photographed protesters protesting in public?”
Amid that uproar, though, the students who penned the editorial insisted on Monday night that outside observers are missing crucial context about the Daily‘s protest coverage and the relationship between the newspaper and the student body.
“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.”
Closson, in a Monday Twitter thread, noted that his identity as one of the few black students ever to lead Northwestern’s newspaper put him in a particularly difficult place when covering marginalized students who have long expressed frustration with the Daily’s coverage of their communities.
“What we want to show marginalized students more than anything is the Daily is really listening to you,” Closson said.
The Northwestern editorial is just the latest firestorm in college journalism, which has received national attention over a similar controversy at Harvard amid a national atmosphere where reporting faces increasingly dire threats from the government and economy.
When Sessions, who recently announced he is running for his former Senate seat in Alabama, came to the Evanston, Illinois, campus last week, the paper extensively covered his speech and two student protests, one peaceful and one disruptive. As protesters climbed through windows and pushed their way into the lecture hall where Sessions was giving a talk called “The Real Meaning of the Trump Agenda,” two freshman reporters interviewed people in the crowd.
When police rushed the protesters, photographer Colin Boyle rushed to cover the clash.
“I snapped into the journalistic response of making images,” Boyle told The Post. “When that happened, I was just trying to tell the story of what was going on.”
Boyle, a senior, said he was concerned for his fellow students, especially after noticing that some of the body cameras worn by officers had clattered to the floor during the confrontation.
“These are my peers, these are people that I might have class with,” he said. “If something happened, God forbid, I was the only camera that was non-police-owned in that area, to my knowledge.”
Boyle then posted some of the photos he considered newsworthy to Twitter. The reporters, meanwhile, used a student directory after the event to look up cellphone numbers for students who attended the peaceful protest, and then texted them to ask whether they would agree to be interviewed.
The Daily published its stories the following day.
The editors soon faced a backlash from student activists, who complained that the university might use pictures of them or their names to punish them. Within hours, the paper agreed to redact one protester’s name from the story. Boyle also deleted the photos he had tweeted out that clearly showed protesters’ faces.
On Friday, the university’s president warned that disruptive protesters could, in fact, face disciplinary action, though he also appeared to praise student activists willing to take that risk to stand up for their beliefs.
“You can protest, you can’t hurt anybody and you can’t shut down speech. And if you do, you’re going to face the consequences,” Northwestern President Morton Schapiro said, the Daily reported. “And I think that you give [the protesters] credit. If they put themselves on the line and their academic future for something they believe in, and they really do violate the rules and disrupt free speech, God bless them. But our job is to make sure they have consequences, otherwise, we’re not educators.”
Over the weekend, the editors decided to explain the paper’s decision-making in an editorial published on Sunday. Closson said they wanted to make clear to their fellow students that they were listening to their concerns.
The editorial vowed to be more thoughtful about using the student directory and explained why its photographer deleted photos from Twitter and why a protester’s name was removed from a story.
“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,” the Daily editors wrote. “We failed to do that last week, and we could not be more sorry.”
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.”
Closson said the student journalists were surprised by the reaction of professional journalists, many of whom harshly criticized the Daily, although he said he appreciated the feedback he received from people who reached out to him directly with advice.
By Monday night, Closson had taken to Twitter to admit that the paper had “over-corrected” on some counts in its editorial, and to reassure critics that the student paper knew it had a legal right to take photos and publish names of protesters. That wasn’t the point, he argued.
“We aren’t unclear about our rights as a newspaper to cover student protest, but also understand the need to do so with empathy,” he wrote. “Know that our staff is doing the best we can to do our jobs as student journalists while working through gaps in knowledge about what student journalism consists of – and showing that we at least hear the real concerns from students.”
On Monday Charles Whitaker, the dean of Northwestern’s journalism program, acknowledged the criticism of the student journalists’ “reporting techniques” and the need for diversity among their ranks but defended their right to report.
“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,” Whitaker said in a statement.
He added that “the swarm of alums and journalists who are outraged about The Daily editorial” should “give the young people a break.”
While dozens of professional journalists balked at the Daily’s editorial choices, the student reporters also received a strong outpouring of support from national and local reporters who encouraged them to grow from the experience.
“The best way to learn is to make mistakes,” HuffPost news editor Saba Hamedy tweeted Monday. “The best place to make these mistakes is arguably in college. Maybe the criticism from professional journalists will help them realize that they shouldn’t cower when they are doing their jobs.”
Some noted that the online backlash may have been overwrought considering the scale of the Daily’s editorial choices regarding a single protest.
“I can’t imagine what it’s like to go through the trials and tribulations of j-school in this extremely online, shoot-from-the-hip dogpiling era,” BuzzFeed News deputy curation editor Brandon Wall wrote on Twitter.
One former Northwestern student turned professional journalist, Jonathan Katz, said the editorial was probably not anything to worry about.
“Overwritten notes from editors taking themselves and the paper way too seriously are a proud DN tradition and everyone is going to be just fine,” he wrote on Twitter.
Boyle said the episode has prompted him to reexamine how he covers public events.
“There’s a power and privilege that the press has that we as journalists take for granted,” he said. “It’s up to us as journalists to help people understand what journalism is. It’s also up to us to understand the communities we’re reporting on.”
The Washington Post’s Derek Hawkins contributed to this report.
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