A curious apology provides lesson for student journalists
Journalism students at Northwestern University's renowned Medill School of Journalism are getting firsthand experience this week with one of the profession's most hallowed traditions -- hand-wringing. I hope they're learning something. Perhaps we all can.
The student editors for the school newspaper, the Daily Northwestern, stepped into hot water in arenas both social and professional when they published an apology for their coverage of student protests during the campus appearance last week of former U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions. What tenets of fair, comprehensive reporting they broke by publishing pictures of protesters acting in public, naming and quoting sources who freely identified themselves or using the university's public telephone directory to contact students to interview are rather difficult for those of us who have been doing this work for a while to identify. But apologize they did in an editorial on Sunday, and I suspect they're having as many second thoughts about that decision now as they had about the coverage they lamented.
I sympathize with them. They did the wrong thing after doing the right thing, but I know where their discomfort comes from, and that's a place that people who follow the news should appreciate in their journalists. What appears to have stirred the editors' self-flagellation were reactions from protesters who discovered there could be consequences at the university for some of their behaviors and, in retrospect, resented not that they protested but that pictures of their protesting were published and their names were attached to quotes they gave reporters. Hearing their classmates' complaints, The Daily's editors commiserated with their ironic sense of violated privacy.
Empathy is not a bad thing in a journalist. It can help him or her tell stories in a more human way. It can help provide balance in decision making about what to include and what not to include, what to cover and what not to cover and how to approach complex, sensitive topics. Joining a mob of students trying to crawl through windows and break through doors and police lines to disrupt a fellow American's rightful speech to hundreds of other fellow Americans is not that complex or sensitive, however. Session's appearance was a major campus event, and The Daily should be proud to have covered it well.
Which it did, by the way. The report in question is not entirely free from bias, but it's a pretty complete, vivid and candid description of the events -- both of Sessions' speech and of dual protests the address prompted. Moreover, the student journalists also provided thought-provoking, mostly balanced, coverage of emotional discussions between pro- and anti-Sessions students in advance of the speech and of University President Morton Schapiro's address to parents a couple days after it.
The appearance of a deeply conservative former attorney general explaining the Donald Trump agenda to a university campus is an event certain to provoke emotions and rancorous debates. Such, for good reason, are the stock-in-trade of serious newspapers in a democracy, though covering them honestly is bound to upset people on all sides of the issues. Sure, it may lead sensitive editors to question decisions they made or actions they took in the heat of the moment, but I have advice for the student journalists at The Daily Northwestern.
Get used to it.