Student journalism took a hit this week at the hands of The Daily Northwestern.
The Daily, Northwestern University’s student newspaper, published an editorial apologizing for its coverage of former Attorney General Jeff Sessions speaking on campus and the accompanying protests. As student journalists learning how to best publish the truth, we definitely see the value in a correction, clarification or even apology when it comes to coverage — that is, when necessary.
But in this case, The Daily has nothing to apologize for.
But instead of sticking to their guns when criticized for their coverage, the journalists succumbed to criticism and published a vague, misguided and embarrassing apology.
The staff apologized for basic journalistic tasks, like taking photos of protesters in public places and reaching out to students to request an interview. We’re well acquainted with how tricky it can be to balance the conflicting interests that come with being a student journalist, but we were dumbfounded by this apology.
The apology also glosses over the “harm students experienced,” but never directly details how students were hurt by their coverage.
This whole situation undoubtedly means yet another uphill battle for student journalists who already face tough obstacles. If student journalists buckle in the face of criticism, it opens the door for university administrations and other critics to try to bully papers into apologizing when it’s not warranted.
We’re in the business of truth. Our work is unapologetic by nature.
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? pic.twitter.com/rL5RMQWz84— Casey Toner (@ctoner) November 11, 2019
This situation, as unfortunate as it may be, is jam-packed with lessons for everyone, not only student journalists. The public — specifically politically active and possibly naive college students — should understand the role of the media, point-blank.
The protesters at Northwestern should have understood the risks before they decided to demonstrate on a campus that doesn’t condone it. They should have understood the chance of being photographed. The Daily photojournalists and reporters did nothing wrong here and were adhering to their duties to accurately report the situation.
The public also needs to understand that reaching out for an interview is commonplace in a newsroom. Finding contact information and requesting an interview are necessary parts of the job, and far from an “invasion of privacy,” as the editorial describes it. In fact, they’re simply fair reporting practices. It gives people the opportunity to say their piece, whether they decide to or not.
The Daily quoted the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ) Code of Ethics in its editorial, saying “Ethical journalism treats sources, subjects, colleagues and members of the public as human beings deserving of respect.” Here at The Phoenix, we also adhere to the SPJ Code of Ethics, and we take it seriously — every word.
That means we treat our sources with enough respect to trust them with the responsibility of understanding the potential impacts of publicly protesting. We suggest The Daily follow suit.
While The Daily has been getting blasted on social media by professional journalists with somewhat justified rage, it’s important to understand Northwestern journalists aren’t professionals yet. They need to be taught, not merely chastised. We hope these journalists taking to social media to air their grievances are also reaching out to The Daily directly to teach them a lesson on media ethics.
Professional journalists could do this, sure, but the student paper should have a faculty advisor to guide them through the sticky situations student journalists face. Speaking from experience, our trusty advisers have helped us navigate obstacles more times than we can count. We’ve made mistakes before, and with the help of our experienced advisers, we took them seriously and responded accordingly. We sure couldn’t have done this on our own.
One of the biggest problems US journalists face in this day and age is how few people understand what standard news-gathering process looks like. A student newspaper saying normal process is somehow a bad thing is incredibly troubling. https://t.co/LPaBrIUCwW— Maggie Haberman (@maggieNYT) November 12, 2019
At Loyola, Northwestern and other schools teaching journalism, professors should at the very least see this as an opportunity to explain the potential roadblocks of the free press — and then offer advice on navigating those obstacles in a professional and ethical way.
Of The Phoenix staffers in the newsroom Tuesday night, most of whom are journalism majors, very few had professors discuss it in class.
In this mess of a situation, a lot of people made mistakes. But we hope everyone learns from them.
Our message to The Daily: Learn from this. Keep doing what you’re doing, and please don’t apologize for ethical, honest and important work.
And if you want some fellow student journalists to kick around ideas with, talk out word choice or just talk shop, our inbox is open.