Feder: Daily Northwestern has nothing to apologize for -- except its apology

Updated 11/12/2019 4:44 PM

Someday the young editors of The Daily Northwestern will look back on this episode in their lives with regret.

But for now, let's just think of it as a teachable moment for some misguided college students who need to learn that journalists don't apologize for doing their jobs. Otherwise they shouldn't be journalists.


On Sunday the student newspaper of Northwestern University in Evanston posted a bizarre editorial signed by senior Troy Closson, editor-in-chief of The Daily Northwestern, and eight other editors on staff.

It's important to note that The Daily operates independently of Northwestern's Medill School of Journalism -- although many of its staffers come from the renowned school. Unfortunately, this already seems to be giving a black eye to both the paper and Medill. (Disclosure: I am a Medill alumnus, but I never worked on The Daily.)

"Addressing The Daily's coverage of Sessions protests" was the innocuous headline on what turned out to be an unnecessary apology to readers. "We could not be more sorry," the editors wrote, regarding how the paper reported on an appearance by former Attorney General Jeff Sessions at a College Republicans event and the protests that ensued.

Afterward some of the protesters complained about The Daily posting photos of the event, finding them be "retraumatizing and invasive." In their mea culpa, the editors agreed that the photos should not have appeared.

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The editors also apologized for reporters using Northwestern's directory to obtain phone numbers for students and asking if they'd be willing to be interviewed.

"We recognize being contacted like this is an invasion of privacy," the editorial said.

For the most part, reaction of the journalism establishment on social media has been unsparing. Here is a small sampling:

Glenn Kessler: 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.

John Aravosis: Dear God. Northwestern University's student paper just disciplined student journalists for covering a protest of Jeff Sessions on campus. This editorial is a disgusting un-American betrayal of the tenets of journalism. Their sin: Covering a protest and asking for interviews.


Dan Balz: College journalists are under new pressures. Witness what the Harvard Crimson just went through (critics demanded an apology from the student journalists for seeking comment from ICE in a story about protesters calling for the elimination of ICE). Rather than jumping on the Northwestern student journalists, we all need to help explain to other students the basic practices and values of good journalism and why it matters.

Maggie Haberman: One of the biggest problems US journalists face in this day and age is how few people understand what standard newsgathering process looks like. A student newspaper saying normal process is somehow a bad thing is incredibly troubling.

Derrick Blakley: The Daily has got it seriously twisted. You don't ask permission for those involved in news stories whether they want to be covered or not. The protesters decided on their own to disrupt a public event. If they wanted to protect their identities, not be photographed or interviewed, they could and should have stayed home.

Casey Toner: I have a ton of patience for college newspaper mistakes, having been a foolish and bullheaded journalism student myself, but this is humiliating. What is going on at Northwestern?

Mara Gay: To my fellow professionals trolling student journalists, save it. Did your college paper get it right every time? Ours didn't. So close the app and make yourself available for friendly advice offline. Be an adult.

Stephanie Zimmermann: Good grief. This is ridiculous. Protesters protesting in a public place have zero expectation of privacy. If they don't want to stick their neck out, they should stay in their dorm room and write a letter. Journalists at @thedailynu should not apologize for DOING THEIR JOB.

Neil Holdway: Looking up names in the directory and *asking* if they'd be willing to be interviewed is about as professional as it gets -- would it be any different stopping them around campus and asking for comment? And posting photographs of protesters -- I'm not seeing much problem there.

Medill Dean Charles Whitaker, in a statement, said the students journalists had no reason to apologize.

"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," he wrote.

He chastised critics of The Daily Northwestern's coverage of the protest, calling it "naive" and "wrongheaded" to declare the journalists "had somehow violated the personal space of the protesters by reporting on the proceedings, which were conducted in the open and were designed, ostensibly, to garner attention."

Whitaker called the students editors' apology a "heartfelt, though not well-considered editorial." But he advised critics of the apology: "Give the young people a break."

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