EVANSTON, Ill. (CBS) — An apologetic editorial in the Daily Northwestern has caused an uproar at Northwestern University – and well beyond its campus.
As CBS 2’s Jim Williams reported Tuesday, that editorial accepts blame for being complicit in “harm” students in its coverage of a protest against former U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ appearance at Lutkin Hall on campus last week.
“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,” the editorial said in its opening paragraph.
Northwestern University Medill School of Journalism professor Caryn Ward has added a new lesson to her classroom instruction.
“The first thing I would say is journalists should never apologize for doing their job,” Ward said. “This is a teachable moment. These are students involved here.”
The newspaper had tweeted photos of students protesting Sessions’ appearance.
“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,” the editorial said.
The editorial went further in expressing guilt for tweeting the photos, adding: “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.”
The Daily Northwestern added its reporters use of the student directory to contact protesters was an “invasion of privacy.” The editorial further expressed worries that it could be complicit in disciplinary actions the university could bring down against students who protested.
“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. We also welcome any feedback you have about our reporting — that night or otherwise,” the editorial said. “The feedback that we have already received either directly or via social media has been incredibly helpful for us, and we are working to implement it immediately.”
Journalists around the world ripped the editorial.
Glenn Kessler of the Washington Post represented many on Twitter:
“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.”
Yes, the Daily Northwestern screwed up. And who are we to judge? https://t.co/4LaOQ2mH0X
— ErikWemple (@ErikWemple) November 12, 2019
The Daily Northwestern is independent of the university. The schools said it has no faculty adviser, that the students journalists alone are free to decide what gets covered and what gets published.
The Dean of Medill, Charles Whitaker, was empathetic. He said the student journalists had been “beat into submission by the vitriol and relentless public shaming.”
Still, Whitaker wrote the editorial sent a chilling message about journalism in society.
“It suggests that we are not independent authors of the community narrative, but are prone to bowing to the loudest and most influential voices in our orbit,” Whitaker wrote. “To be sure, journalism has often bowed to the whim and will of the rich and powerful, so some might argue that it is only fair that those who feel dispossessed and disenfranchised have their turn at calling the journalistic shots. But that is not the solution. We need more diversity among our student journalists (and in journalism writ large). We need more voices from different backgrounds in our newsrooms helping to provide perspective on our coverage. But regardless of their own identities, our student journalists must be allowed—and must have the courage—to cover our community freely and unfettered by harassment each time members of the community feel they have been wronged.”
Ward said the student journalists are learning another lesson: criticism comes with the job, even on a college campus.
“You’re not going to make everybody happy. You’re not here to make friends. You’re here to cover the news.”
CBS 2 reached out to the Daily Northwestern reporters. The editor-in-chief Troy Closson referred CBS 2 to his Twitter feed. There, he said the newspaper has to cover student protests 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
Meanwhile, a student photographer at the center of the uproar said he is using the controversy as a learning experience.
“What I learned here is, you know, how to scale back in what we do. Is this tweet really necessary at this very moment? Is our wording correct? Are we showing any implicit biases that we may not intend to have?” said Daly Northwestern photographer Colin Boyle.