A few caveats right out of the gate: I'm a proud alumnus of Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism ('07), and in my experience, the Daily Northwestern has been a top-flight, if flawed, student newspaper. But the Daily's latest editorial to its readers -- excruciatingly crafted to placate a vocal fringe -- is an abject embarrassment and an affront to journalism. Briefly, the back story: Former US Attorney General Jeff Sessions spoke on campus last week, an event that was deemed controversial in certain quarters. Some progressive activist students attempted to disrupt Sessions' speech, but police maintained order, and the address went forward. The Daily followed the chaos as it unfolded, with reporters tweeting live updates, and offering detailed coverage in the following day's newspaper. Which brings us to the editors' unseemly and anti-journalistic groveling. Apology number one:
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. One area of our reporting that harmed many students was our photo coverage of the event. Some protesters found photos posted to reporters’ Twitter accounts retraumatizing and invasive. Those photos have since been taken down. On one hand, as the paper of record for Northwestern, we want to ensure students, administrators and alumni understand the gravity of the events that took place Tuesday night. However, we decided to prioritize the trust and safety of students who were photographed. 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.
This is, put simply, appalling. Disseminating photographs taken during public protests of a public event is neither "re-traumatizing" (being in the same general vicinity as a public official, even if one strongly opposes his or her views, is not a "traumatic event") nor " invasive." It is journalism. Students chose to participate in disruptive protests. Journalists documented what happened. If these students did not want to be photographed within this context, they could have chosen not to participate in the protests. If they did not wish to be "re-traumatized" by what the photographs depict, they could have chosen not look at them. A news outlet apologizing for publishing relevant, non-obscene, non-violent images from a news event, then retroactively censoring those images, can be described any number of ways. It cannot be described as journalism. The sentence in which the editors assert that ensuring that their "fellow students feel safe" is more important than documenting history or spreading accurate information is emotionalist, coddling, infantilizing activism. It is not journalism. Apology number two:
Some students also voiced concern about the methods that Daily staffers used to reach out to them. Some of our staff members who were covering the event used Northwestern’s directory to obtain phone numbers for students beforehand and texted them to ask if they’d be willing to be interviewed. We recognize being contacted like this is an invasion of privacy, and we’ve spoken with those reporters — along with our entire staff — about the correct way to reach out to students for stories.
Using a student directory to contact students for comment is in no way an invasion of privacy. It is basic journalism. Reporters often reach out to people who may not be eager to be interviewed or quoted. It is part of the job. Journalists sometimes need to be resourceful and persistent to get in touch with people. Consulting a campus directory (the very purpose of which is to provide contact information) in this context is common-sensical and inoffensive. If those who were solicited for quotes did not want to furnish them, they could have responded as such, and that would have been the end of it. Apology number three:
We also wanted to explain our choice to remove the name of a protester initially quoted in our article on the protest. Any information The Daily provides about the protest can be used against the participating students — while some universities grant amnesty to student protesters, Northwestern does not. We did not want to play a role in any disciplinary action that could be taken by the University. Some students have also faced threats for being sources in articles published by other outlets. When the source in our article requested their name be removed, we chose to respect the student’s concerns for their privacy and safety. As a campus newspaper covering a student body that can be very easily and directly hurt by the University, we must operate differently than a professional publication in these circumstances.
They printed an accurate quote from source involved in the protests, which was offered freely by said source. The student in question chose to speak to a reporter, on the record. But because disciplinary actions might be taken against students deemed to have violated university policies, the editors decided to un-print the student's name. If this person had requested anonymity as a pre-condition to be quoted in the first place, the editors could have made a call on whether or not to agree to the request. Engaging in after-the-fact censorship because a source was displeased with impact of his or her decision is revisionist airbrushing in the face of pressure. It is not journalism. The piece concludes with a vow to use more "empathy" in the future, especially in coverage of "marginalized" groups, and is co-signed by the newspaper's "diversity and inclusion" chairs.
The editors are getting deservedly roasted in the comments section, as well as by an impressive cross-section of journalistic twitter. It is disturbing that this editorial was even drafted, let alone published. It represents a sniveling retreat from journalism, obviously rushed out in response to irate reactions from a sliver of myopic children who effectively demanded that journalists afford them the luxury of private engagement in public protest. At the risk of becoming even more alarmed, I would like to know what the faculty at Medill, which has earned a reputation as one of the country's premier journalism schools over many decades, think about this editorial judgment. Even though the Daily is an independent publication, its work unavoidably reflects on the program. Medill should publicly repudiate this editorial on principle, in defense of both the school's stature and the tenets of journalism (see update). They might also consider an urgent recalibration of educational emphasis. I mean, my goodness.
More broadly, if elite institutions abandon support for the First Amendment (here's another recent example from Harvard), dark times lie ahead. And the notion that this sort of madness is merely confined to the academy is obviously not true anymore. Woke, stifling political correctness, in subordination of the truth, is infecting increasing swaths of society writ large, with real and distressing consequences. That the Daily Northwestern actively elected to undermine the credibility of its work with this egregious sop to the outrage mob is a tragedy. Its current leadership might as well have taken out a full-page advertisement announcing that their newspaper is no longer in the news business, and cannot be counted upon to relay accurate, factual information without fear or favor. This was not an accident, but a choice. I'll leave you with this, which pained me to write, on several levels:
Honestly, if @thedailynu *truly* wants to help members of our community “feel safe” and avoid “re-traumatization,” they should censor boxscores from this season’s football and basketball games. https://t.co/0S02BcZXkq— Guy Benson (@guypbenson) November 12, 2019
UPDATE - The Dean of Medill responds:
@MedillSchool’s Dean defends the Daily’s original reporting methods as entirely legitimate, blasts activists for vitriolic bullying & threats against student journalists, and says the resulting “not well considered” editorial apology “sends a chilling message” about journalism...— Guy Benson (@guypbenson) November 12, 2019