In collegiate newsrooms around the country, tucked away in corridors of campus buildings, student journalists work tirelessly in time they don’t have. Textbooks lie scattered across tables, editors collaborate on problem sets in between sessions of editing, forgotten homework assignments sit precariously stuffed between style guide pages. In student journalism, “student” is the operative word, and one that is often all-too-quickly forgotten by readership that only reads the final product.
Yet for the student journalists themselves, who do the vital work of reporting and storytelling, “student” and “journalist” creates a clash. Working for a college newspaper—while balancing schoolwork and general well-being—can be a daunting challenge, particularly when learning journalism and producing journalism occurs simultaneously. In theory, collegiate newsrooms are training rooms, where young journalists can simply find the ink under their pens. But in today’s media landscape, the condensing field of news outlets creates news deserts for student journalists to fill with their coverage, making our work more necessary than ever before. On top of that, there’s the omnipresent gaze of social media, under which news coverage can be critiqued instantly by anyone, anywhere. Today, writing and publishing demand more vulnerability from reporters; while most college students commit their follies privately, the work of student journalists can be painfully public.
With this empathy in mind, understanding that mistakes can be made by pre-professional students anywhere, I’ll only now say that The Daily Northwestern, the student newspaper at one of the most prominent journalism schools in the country, mishandled backlash to a recent story. On Nov. 5, The Daily went about their usual work, covering a student protest at an event featuring former Attorney General Jeff Sessions. In a letter released five days later, editors apologized for their approach to coverage, adding that they had taken down any reporting that identified the student protestors. The coverage under fire includes photos of protestors confronting police officers, the publication of their names and the reporters’ decision to solicit comments through the student directory email list.
I am not doubting that this coverage was, for the subjects specifically, “retraumatizing and invasive,” as described in The Daily’s letter (The Daily, “Addressing The Daily’s coverage of Sessions protests,” 11.10.2019). But this lived experience should not determine whether or not reporters have the right to document the unabridged reality of a notable event. Journalism captures hard moments when hard moments present themselves, in which people confront conflict and events go awry. In these moments, reporting has an even more essential role to play—reporters must make their own decisions, stick to their practices and speak truth to power, without external interference. This is the only means by which reporting becomes accurate record, especially at colleges and universities, where the newspaper is often the only detailed raconteur of the campus. When the students at Northwestern chose to protest, they chose to put themselves in the public square, to participate in an event designed to garner attention. When one signs up to be a journalist, they take on the responsibility of informing the public about a protest of significant interest. Journalists, on college campuses and beyond, act as the mediator, the storyteller, that pushes progress forward and cements it in print.
Yet, there are also ethical considerations to keep in mind, considerations which can clash with reporting in the first place. I understand the place of empathy that The Daily’s Troy Closson, only the third Black Editor-in-Chief in the paper’s 135 years, is coming from. His apology and redaction reflect his commitment to protect students, particularly those of marginalized identities, and to do so from a platform with a notable voice and a predominantly white audience. As a privileged white man, operating in a predominantly white profession, I am aware that my positionality allows me to safely critique this incident from a distance—I do not have direct experience with being on the wrong side of coverage, and I do not know what it is like to have my identity consistently misconstrued, attacked and traumatized in the media. So, I respect the paper’s willingness to issue a statement driven distinctly by empathy, one that stands outside the mythical medium of “objectivity.”
I do, however, believe the implementation of these ideals, through the paper’s apology, was misguided. I believe this reporting was good journalism, and good journalism does not require an apology and a redaction upon request. In certain situations, some values must outweigh others—security and privacy gives way to the mediums that make public truths visible. Certainly, journalists should not sensationalize, nor replay traumatic events just to draw eyeballs. But when it comes to the Daily’s duties of reporting, transparency and facts are largely unmovable tenets of good journalism. Sources cannot determine when an apology is given, and their discretion should not blend into editorial discretion.
Yet, I cannot concretely say that other collegiate Editors-in-Chief, myself included, would have acted differently under the same circumstances. Within the progressive spheres our newspapers are embedded in, we work and report on students who are highly motivated in their efforts to create a more equitable world. We report on rapidly changing social norms in rapidly changing times. A recent New York Times piece, “News or ‘Trauma Porn’? Student Journalist Face Blowback on Campus,” speaks to this paradigm: “[S]hifting sensibilities and heightened criticism of the media have made the environment thornier for student journalists.”
The pressure to get it right has never been greater. Considering what defines a peer’s safety is always a difficult process. We are journalists, but we are also students, making decisions that have real implications for other students. Professionally, our small communities and peers double as our sources, and we must avoid burning bridges. Personally, the mere act of reporting on students naturally leaves them vulnerable. These are not typical sources—students often already lack sufficient protection on college campuses in the first place, whether in their career development, identities or personal lives.
I strongly believe in the principles of journalism, the same exact principles that have been used to rebuke The Daily. But I also understand how it is now, more than ever, easier to bend and reinterpret principles, especially in college settings that can be challenging to navigate. The line between journalistic practices and moral overstep is being continuously drawn and redrawn.
This in mind, the work of student journalists, here and everywhere, persists. We must continue to work toward a more transparent and just society. I hope to continue to uphold the Misc’s values, while also remaining unafraid to give our readership the news.
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It seems ludicrous to me that students would object to being photographed at a public protest, when in this day and age anyone in public (and often in private) is subject to being filmed by numerous witnesses on their cell phones and the videos uploaded to social media for the world to see.
But there really is no excuse for the editor of the student newspaper to give in to the pressure of the mob who wants first to bully the invited speaker into silence and then to bully the student newspaper to refrain from reporting on the original bullying.
This is how civil society begins to fray, and badly.