Classroom Connection: Northwestern apology firestorm


Student journalists at The Daily Northwestern — the independent student-run news organization at Northwestern University — sparked intense national debate and criticism among professional journalists and others last week after they apologized in a Nov. 10 column for a series of actions taken by staff members while covering protests of a campus speech five days earlier by former U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions.

After protesters said that they considered photos posted on Twitter by The Daily’s photographer, Colin Boyle, and other staff to be retraumatizing and invasive (including one of a student knocked down by police), those photos were deleted. In a statement he posted the night of the protest, Boyle acknowledged that he “failed to get consent on making these images as the tense moments were going on,” while noting that he was “doing my best as a photojournalist to document what was happening so that people were aware of what students were going through while Jeff Sessions was on campus” — in essence, standard journalism practice for covering a protest.

Other students were concerned that the Daily staff had used the university directory to find their cellphone numbers and then texted them, asking if they would be willing to be interviewed. In their apology, the student journalists said they recognized this as “an invasion of privacy” — even though journalists regularly use directories for such purposes. In addition, the article about the protest was revised to remove the name of a protester who was quoted so that the student would be protected from disciplinary action by the university.

“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,” eight editors, led by editor in chief Troy Closson, wrote in the Nov. 10 column. “We failed to do that last week, and we could not be more sorry.”

A day later, in response to “the concerns that everyone has shared on Twitter,” Closson said in a tweet thread that “we covered the protest to its full extent and stand by our reporting” and that the editors’ statement “over-corrected” in some ways. He said that it has been challenging to balance his position as editor in chief with both his racial identity — he is only the third Black editor in chief in The Daily’s history — and the knowledge that the publication has previously failed students of color.

Outraged critics — including working journalists and graduates of Northwestern’s prestigious Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications — said the student journalists had nothing to apologize for (except for their apology) because they were simply practicing journalism.

While The Daily isn’t affiliated with Medill, the school’s dean, Charles Whitaker, weighed in with a statement on Nov. 12: “As the dean of Medill, where many of these young journalists are trained,” he wrote, “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.”

He called the apology “a heartfelt, though not well-considered editorial,” and urged the Medill alumni and other journalists who had condemned it to back off. The student journalists, he said, “were beat into submission by the vitriol and relentless public shaming” and faced “the brutal onslaught of venom and hostility that has been directed their way on weaponized social media.”

“I say, give the young people a break,” he wrote. “What they need at this moment is our support and the encouragement to stay the course.”

For educators:

Discuss: Do you think the Northwestern student journalists should have apologized for the way they covered the student protests? Do you agree with their response to criticism from their peers? If you don’t, how do you think they should have responded? Were they right to take down photos and remove a protester’s name from an article to protect the student from potential discipline? Were they wrong to contact students using the university directory to ask if they would be willing to be interviewed? Do you think it is insensitive for a news outlet to publish photos of protesters being knocked down by police, or do you think that is an important image for the public to see? What role has photojournalism played historically in exposing violence and other forms of injustice?

Idea: Have students read and review the standards in the Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics, which was mentioned in the apology. Then ask students to identify which parts of the code were relevant in the Northwestern case.

Another idea: Have students compare and contrast the Northwestern case with the recent backlash against The Harvard Crimson. Ask students which was the better response, and why. Then discuss how the Harvard student journalists might have responded to the criticism received at Northwestern and how the Northwestern student journalists might have responded to the criticism received at Harvard.

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