The Daily Northwestern, Where Journalism Committed Suicide (Update)

The Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University was supposed to be pretty good. One of the best, some say. Maybe it was once, but not today.

On Nov. 5, former Attorney General Jeff Sessions spoke on campus at a Northwestern University College Republicans event. The Daily sent a reporter to cover that talk and another to cover the students protesting his invitation to campus, along with a photographer. 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.

This was from The Daily Northwestern, “Northwestern and Evanston’s only daily news source since 1881.” The children-editors, all of whom signed on to this apology, got down to the nitty-gritty of how they “failed” the students.

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.

They took photos of a public protest.

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. . ..

The sought interviews.

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.

They named names, and then deleted them. Why did they spurn these ordinary and proper journalistic norms?

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.

They are sorry. Worse than sorry, as they not only apologize for the “harm” of reporting a newsworthy event, but announce their fix of becoming a propaganda machine in the future.

Going forward, we are working on setting guidelines for source outreach, social media and covering marginalized groups. As students at Northwestern, we are also grappling with the impact of Tuesday’s events, and as a student organization, we are figuring out how we can support each other and our communities through distressing experiences that arise on campus. We will also work to balance the need for information and the potential harm our news coverage may cause.

All the news that hurts no fragile but brave protester’s feelings? This comes from a university’s paper, a university where there was once a respected journalism school. While advocacy journalism has become acceptable within the journalistic community at large, so that no reader be told facts that might detract from the “truth” a reporter wants them to know, they at least have the scintilla of shame left to pretend they aren’t lying, concealing facts, subverting the story so that no child is “traumatized” by truth.

Is speech safe on campus? Some argue that the concerns are overblown, that students aren’t trying to silence people or ideas they disfavor. But it’s one thing to have some angry passionate kids bent on destruction who prefer to wear black (and masks), and another to have a college newspaper abandon its most basic responsibility, to report the facts, and beg on their knees not to be canceled by their fellow students for doing journalism.

That some students felt the need to protest Jeff Sessions speech is not merely fine, but their right. Not to the preclusion of those who wanted to hear Sessions, but that’s nuance beyond the reach of passionate students. After all, if they have a right to condemn, theirs is paramount to any other rights. They will always be the center of the universe. That’s what narcissists do.

But for those students who wanted to hear what Sessions had to say, or more broadly, those students who had nothing to do with the Sessions speech, either as listener or protestor, but merely wanted to read their paper and trust that whatever was reported was slightly factual, they expected to read a factually accurate story in the paper. Instead, they got the funny pages.

Students at Harvard cried about the Crimson’s reaching out to ICE for comment about a protest, raising similar complaints of harm by journalistic facts. To its credit, the Crimson responded with a polite “bite me.”

We understand that some readers may disagree with The Crimson’s policies. But our mission is facts, truth, narrative, and understanding. In our view, consistent application of a commonly accepted set of journalistic standards is the best way to fairly report on the campus in a sensitive and thorough manner.

Pathetically, the Daily Northwestern editors lacked the fortitude to put journalism ahead of the sad feelings of entitled children. To the extent the press serves a role in society, it’s to report the news without fear or favor. At the Medill School of Journalism, they appear to be taught that their job is to be a mouthpiece for activists, or at least a mouthpiece that won’t report anything that hurts the activists’ feelings.

Much as Trump cries “fake news” whenever anything is reported that he doesn’t like, the Daily Northwestern is determined to prove Trump right by the deliberate omission of facts that some students don’t like, and they do so of their own volition. No one murdered journalism at Northwestern. It committed suicide. It’s now dead. What a disgrace.

Update: Medill J-School Dean Charles Whitaker has issued a statement.

But I patently reject the notion that our students have no right to report on communities other than those from which they hail, and I will never affirm that students who do not come from marginalized communities cannot understand or accurately convey the struggles of those populations. And, unlike our young charges at The Daily, who in a heartfelt, though not well-considered editorial, apologized for their work on the Sessions story, I absolutely will not apologize for encouraging our students to take on the much-needed and very difficult task of reporting on our life and times at Northwestern and beyond.

The words are those of a grown-up. He was, perhaps, a bit too forgiving of his “young charges” caving in to the mobs, particularly as they have yet to grasp that this was a failing on their part.

I understand why The Daily editors felt the need to issue their mea culpa. They were beat into submission by the vitriol and relentless public shaming they have been subjected to since the Sessions stories appeared. I think it is a testament to their sensitivity and sense of community responsibility that they convinced themselves that an apology would affect a measure of community healing.

Being strong in the face of “vitriol and relentless public shaming” is hard. It takes fortitude to stare at the crazed mob and say “no.” They lacked the guts to do so. It’s not a testament to sensitivity, but to weakness. Dean Whitaker’s excusing it here, rather than condemning it could explain why his “young charges” failed to show the strength to stand on principle.

His statement was generally excellent, but he should consider where he failed such that his charges lacked the fortitude to stand up to the mob. Or was there nothing an adult can do to buck up the children anymore, and anything less than making excuses for them would just start a new round of crying and shouting “trauma”?

12 thoughts on “The Daily Northwestern, Where Journalism Committed Suicide (Update)

  1. Hunting Guy

    H. L. Mencken.

    “A newspaper is a device for making the ignorant more ignorant and the crazy crazier.“

  2. Hunting Guy

    Adlai Stevenson.

    “Newspaper editors are men who separate the wheat from the chaff, and then print the chaff.”

  3. John Haberstroh

    Why did protesters who “found photos posted to reporters’ Twitter accounts retraumatizing and invasive” visit those Twitter accounts?

  4. B. McLeod

    I think they simply understand that this is “journalism” now, so they must conform to the new expectations.

    1. Futardave

      At The Daily we have a new tac
      We’ll no longer go after the facts
      Instead our reporting
      Will be kind and comforting
      To your cute little heads full of crap.

      1. Fubar

        Alternatively:

        Dear poor traumatized, innocent waif:
        If our news makes you feel so unsafe,
        Let us know how you feel.
        Once we know that, then we’ll
        Lock and load our typewriters. Then strafe!

    2. Casual Lurker

      “…so they must conform to the new expectations.”

      Are they “new expectations” or merely new expectorations?

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