Student journalists should not have to apologize for reporting

People stand near the entrance gate to Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill. | Associated Press

College newspapers, just like any other form of journalism, have a duty to inform and report the truth. This civil responsibility should never be compromised in an effort to please people.

Recently, journalists have criticized Northwestern University’s student newspaper for apologizing for their report on student protests. Although the editors of The Daily Northwestern should have defended their practices rather than kneeling to student complaints, the journalists criticizing them should take a step back and remember what it was like to be a student.

Former U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions spoke on campus after being invited by the University’s College Republicans to discuss the “real meaning of the ‘Trump agenda’” on Nov. 5.

Students protested the talk while pounding on the door of the auditorium and yelling phrases like “F— Jeff Sessions” and “You are a racist, you put kids in cages,” according to The Daily Northwestern’s article covering the event.

The student-run newspaper sent reporters and photographers to capture everything at the scene, from the speech on Trump’s presidency to the groups of protestors.

Soon after the articles were published, the staff of the newspaper began to receive backlash from their peers for taking photographs of student protesters and using Northwestern’s directory to find the phone numbers of potential sources.

One of the students, Ying Dai, saw a photograph taken of her during the protests by Colin Boyle, a student photographer for The Daily Northwestern, on his Twitter feed.

“Colin can we please stop this drama porn,” Dai wrote on Twitter. “I was on the ground being shoved and pushed hard by the police. You don’t have to intervene but you also didn’t have to put a camera in front of me top down.”

The Daily Northwestern removed the name of a student quoted in the article covering the protests and Boyle took the “drama porn” off of his Twitter feed, but it was not enough.

On Nov. 10, the editors of The Daily Northwestern caved under the pressure of their peers and published an editorial apologizing for the matter of how they covered the event and protests.

“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,” the editors said in the apology.

The apology stated the photographs were “retraumatizing and invasive,” the quotes from students protesting could have put them in danger of disciplinary action from the University and the use of the directory was an invasion of the students’ privacy.

In response to the editorial, other student journalists as well as adult journalists scolded The Daily Northwestern for their apology.

“Being a journalist requires empathy, but this ain’t it,” wrote Gregory Pratt of The Chicago Tribune on Twitter.

Charles Whitaker, the dean of Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism, Media and Integrated Marketing Communications, issued a statement regarding the controversy surrounding the Daily Northwestern.

“But let me be perfectly clear, the coverage by The Daily Northwestern of the protests stemming from the recent appearance on campus by former Attorney General Jeff Sessions was in no way beyond the bounds of fair, responsible journalism,” Whitaker said.

The Daily Northwestern, unlike The Baylor Lariat, does not have a faculty adviser. The editors of the Baylor Lariat can recall multiple instances in which an editorial mistake was avoided because of the last-minute intervention from the faculty adviser.

Whitaker said the student-run publication made a mistake for publishing an apology, but he also criticized the statements he described as “vicious bullying, that forced the students to feel like they had to apologize. He even addressed the practicing journalists crucifying the students.

While college journalists should seek to uphold professional journalism practices, others in the field should recognize that they are still students nonetheless.

Journalists working for college newspapers have to answer to their peers: the people who they eat, sleep, learn and live in close proximity with. While peer pressure should never be used as a scapegoat for gritty journalistic work, the Daily Northwestern apology should be read in understanding of their work context.

“And to the swarm of alums and journalists who are outraged about The Daily editorial and have been equally rancorous in their condemnation of our students on social media, I say, give the young people a break,” Whitaker said.

The Daily Northwestern’s apology provides a case study for other student-run newspapers. As a publication, the Baylor Lariat has had to consider what it would do in this situation.

The Baylor Lariat would have sent photographers to capture the speech and actions of the student protests. However, we do not know what these photographs entailed — since they have been removed — so we cannot say if we would have published photos like them or published them on our personal social media accounts.

The Baylor Lariat would have covered both the event and the protests in an effort to chronicle every detail about the event and as many point of views possible.

The Baylor Lariat would have utilized the university’s directory to contact possible sources for our coverage. In fact, we encourage our writers and reporters to use it in many ways including finding sources and checking facts.

The Daily Northwestern apologized for being journalists, for pursuing the truth and for asking the hard questions. In this social climate where journalists and student journalists alike are criticized for doing their jobs, this apology feels like a defeat.

By backing down on their values, giving in to the cancel culture and apologizing for their work, The Daily Northwestern makes all student journalists look bad, and as if we are just “playing pretend” when we are pursuing real stories, covering real events and reporting news just like any other newspaper out there.

Even though the Baylor Lariat disagrees with the Daily Northwestern’s apology, we can empathize and support them even as other journalists may condemn them for their actions.