The Northwestern Daily’s apology was wrong, so was the backlash

Journalism is often misunderstood and misrepresented, particularly by the current presidential administration. Often, this misunderstanding is played out on college campuses, which are seen as battlegrounds for free speech. Earlier this month, the Northwestern campus became a site of controversy regarding the role of student reporters.

A few weeks ago, reporters at The Daily Northwestern, Northwestern University and the Evanston community’s newspaper, covered a protest held against former attorney general Jefferson Sessions’ appearance on campus. The newspaper faced complaints from the public for reporting on the event and taking pictures of protestors. The Daily subsequently apologized for covering the protest on Nov. 10. The Daily operates independently of Northwestern University and the university’s Medill School of Journalism, according to an editor at The Daily. In response to the apology, student journalists and the editor-in-chief at The Daily have faced backlash from reporters within national publications including The New York Times and The Washington Post. 

The Daily’s apology misrepresented journalism, but the backlash the paper received because of their apology was disproportionate. Students will make mistakes and so will student journalists. We, the Editorial Board of The Brandeis Hoot, do not mean to excuse the apology, which was an unfortunate misrepresentation of the goals of journalism and a learning opportunity for student journalists nationally, but we do mean to provide context. We, too, can attest to the struggle of balancing the practice of journalism with our daily lives as students.

The Daily apologized for texting students to request an interview and for taking pictures of student protestors. The Daily apologized for reporting, for doing their job. The apology editorial was misguided—journalists have a responsibility to cover public protests. The Daily not only represents Northwestern but also serves as the surrounding town of Evanston’s paper of record and provides the two communities with important information to residents and students alike.

The controversy over The Daily’s apology follows complaints against student papers in Massachusetts as well. Students at Harvard criticized The Harvard Crimson, Harvard’s campus newspaper, for reaching out to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) after an Abolish ICE rally for comment. The incidents at Northwestern and Harvard represent a fundamental misunderstanding of what journalism is and why we, as student journalists, choose to practice it. 

Journalists are not activists. We don’t aim to convince readers of a point of view; we aim to present the relevant facts readers need to be informed about their community and form their own opinion. The Brandeis Hoot’s own code of ethics is based on the Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics and has four main tenets: seek the truth and report it, minimize harm, act independently and be accountable and transparent. Part of this mission means identifying yourself as a reporter, treating everyone you approach with dignity and respect and always being open to criticism and feedback. 

The Daily aimed to cover a public protest, to seek the truth and report it. The photographs taken and the articles reporters wrote may be the only record of what transpired at the protest, including altercations between students and campus police that their coverage mentioned. Although we cannot know how reporters conducted themselves at the protest, we do know that the reporters had a right and a responsibility to be there. 

The Daily also faced criticism from students for their coverage, especially for their use of photography. While The Daily has a right to publish photos of students who participated in a public protest, the criticism is rooted in long-standing issues with journalism as a field. Criticisms of the event also brought up the issue of journalism’s struggles with appropriately representing marginalized groups in the past. The Dean of Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism Media, Integrated Marketing Communications said it best in his statement about the apology.

“We need more diversity among our student journalists (and in journalism writ large). We need more voices from different backgrounds in our newsrooms helping to provide perspective on our coverage. But regardless of their own identities, our student journalists must be allowed—and must have the courage—to cover our community freely and unfettered by harassment each time members of the community feel they have been wronged,” writes Dean Charles Whitaker.

But The Daily’s student editors were not the only actors who made mistakes in the days following this protest. Several professional journalists flocked to Twitter to criticize these student journalists and their actions—with some authoring columns and opinion pieces. The criticism was harsh and swift and failed to understand that these are students, and they will make mistakes. 

As student reporters, we understand how it can be difficult to balance our lives as students with our responsibilities as journalists. There are certain pressures that we face in the voluntary positions that we have chosen, including exposing ourselves to campus-wide criticism. However, we believe that it is our duty as reporters and journalists to maintain the aforementioned four tenets of journalism and, most importantly, keep the public informed.

Editor’s Note: News Editor Rachel Saal did not contribute to this editorial.

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