On Nov. 11, Northwestern’s student newspaper, The Daily Northwestern, published an apology regarding its reporting of student protesting Jeff Sessions arrival on campus. The apology states that “We recognize that we contributed to the harm students experienced.”
The writers specifically addressed the photographs of students and methods of contacting students through a university directory.
As a fellow student publication, The Brown and White’s editors met to discuss what these events mean for student journalism. During what is typically our critique session, we reflected on both sides of the issue.
While the apology received national attention from experienced journalists, with an overwhelming disapproval for the decision to apologize, the issue is not as black and white when seen through the lens of modern student journalism.
The Daily Northwestern’s staff writes for the Northwestern community, as well as Evanston, Illinois. Following the controversy, the staff promises to “(work) on setting guidelines for source outreach, social media and covering marginalized groups.”
After contextualizing this statement, The Brown and White’s editorial board found that Northwestern University’s protest policies require a cautious understanding.
In May 2017, a group of students who stopped a guest lecture by a “U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement public relations representative” faced the university’s conduct process as a result of their protest. In January 2018, a student coalition demanded change to protest policies on campus.
The coalition demanded “more specific language and consistent updates,” improving the registration process so students can remain anonymous, and an office dedicated to overseeing registration.
Under Northwestern’s demonstration policy, there is no “typical sanction associated with violations of this Policy. Each case is context-specific.” This unclear wording leaves a gray area with regards to what punishment student protesters will receive if a protest fails to abide by standards that the student coalition sees as “vague and can be used in any way that the administration would like to apply to a student.”
Student journalists uphold the principles of journalism, which include our commitment to the truth and loyalty to citizens. The Daily Northwestern’s reporters did nothing fundamentally wrong in covering a protest on campus.
While The Brown and White’s editorial board disagrees with The Daily’s apology for taking photographs and contacting students through a university directory, nobody understands the impact of its reporting as transparently as the reporters and students were there.
Medill School of Journalism Dean Charles Whitaker said in a statement, “the coverage by The Daily Northwestern … was in no way beyond the bounds of fair.” While he agrees with the reporting, he emphasized the importance of diversity in the newsroom.
No, the journalists did not violate journalistic principles. With this in mind, there is still work to do to ensure that empathy and diverse voices have a presence in the newsroom.
Whitaker continued to say, “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.”
Regardless of how their apology is received, the journalists involved will come out of this situation with a better understanding of the power of their work. With great power comes complex decisions and a sizable impact on our community.
While spectators comment on what they would have done differently, The Daily’s staff continued to do what journalists do: On Nov. 12, they continued to report and publish the truth.
It is important to reflect on instances such as this one and affirm the power of journalism. With this great power comes hard decisions and potential mistakes. What truly matters is that, no matter what, we will continue to report.
As young journalists, we have a responsibility to uphold the timeless principles of journalism, all while facing challenges to journalism’s future.
Whether or not The Daily made the right decision is up for debate. But regardless of the conflicting verdicts, the staff still published a paper the next day. And for that, they deserve to move forward and get back to the newsroom.