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Lessons from Northwestern U’s student edit open learning paths

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by Candace Bowen, MJE

Student journalism – at least at the collegiate level – hit the news big time last week and received plenty of criticism — both for what was covered and for an apology for covering the story.

However, as the newspaper’s editor said in a tweet later, “Our statement addressed some legitimate areas of growth we noticed in our reporting, but also over-corrected in others.”

Growth and learning here are vital. And the situation may have some good lessons for advisers working with high school media, too.

If students (or anyone else) protest in public, taking their photograph and reporting on the protest is fair game under the First Amendment. There was no intrusion on anyone’s privacy or ‘safety.’: an attorney who has defended journalists

For those who haven’t read about the incident in reactions and links on the JEAHELP listserv or seen tweets or posts from various journalists and the Washington Post, New York Times and Chicago Tribune, here’s a brief explanation and then a look at the lessons those student journalists might learn – and our students as well.

Former attorney general Jeff Sessions spoke Nov. 5 at Northwestern University, hosted by the school’s College Republicans. Not everyone was pleased about this, particularly because of Sessions’ policies concerning minorities and marginalized communities. The independent student newspaper, The Daily Northwestern, set out to cover both the speech and the protests. This included quotes from protesters and photos of those who carried signs and eventually forced their way into the speech. This resulted in meeting police, who then were, as The Daily reported, “knocking some to the ground and pushing others out.”

The results of the student coverage the next day were complaints from protesters and demands that a protester’s name be removed from quotes and photos deleted from a staff photographer’s Twitter account. After The Daily did make these changes, editor-in-chief Troy Closson published an editorial, apologizing for the staff’s initial coverage.

He wrote that he did want their audience to “understand the gravity of the events that took place,” but also “decided to prioritize the trust and safety of students who were photographed.” 

That’s when newsroom pros jumped in, some outraged and highly critical. Not surprisingly, those on Twitter tended to be a bit more caustic and less reasoned. Some were downright nasty. But this was the gist of those:

“If saying sorry for doing a journalist’s job…perhaps the real world will be a little too much for you. Perhaps you should just get out now….,” tweeted a Seattle TV news photographer.

A reporter from the NBC affiliate in Chicago was tough, but straightforward in his response to Crosson’s editorial: “As a working journalist of 44 years, I’m appalled at what I have read in this editorial. It was a public demonstration. Students chose to be there. A reporter asks questions, and publishes the answers. You ask someone’s name. If they don’t want to give it, so be it—they decline. If they give it, you can use it. Period. End of story. The larger question should always be about balance. But worrying about whether someone is going to get in trouble? That’s their choice for being there. (Some very courageous students in China, Egypt, numerous former Soviet bloc countries, and Hong Kong could fill you in on this). 

“Your job is to report on the event.”

Others offered more specific advice: “As an attorney who has litigated First Amendment/Defamation issues and defended journalists, I wish you had used this editorial to explain to your fellow students how journalism and the First Amendment work. If students (or anyone else) protest in public, taking their photograph and reporting on the protest is fair game under the First Amendment. There was no intrusion on anyone’s privacy or ‘safety.’ I applaud the university allowing speakers like Sessions – I don’t agree with his politics, but making universities into ‘safe spaces’ that limit points of view in public discourse is incredibly dangerous.” 

An education reporter in Salem, Oregon, also pointed out the need to learn: “Hey Troy, as one of the journos who shared thoughts on your statement earlier today, I really admire your willingness to work through some tough shit in public. (And deal with a pile-on which I’m sure hasn’t been easy.) I hope y’all can correct the overcorrection & keep learning.”

Entire columns offered even more advice. Eric Wemple, media critic at The Washington Post, wrote, “News outlets are prone to circling the wagons when they get pushback from the folks they cover. They don’t cough up apologies over nothing. It generally takes a whopping error of fact or a face-palming lapse in judgment.”

Then he added a one-word paragraph: “Generally.”

And he acknowledged pros use sources such as “a CNN spokesperson” and what he describes as “the protective veil hovering over most press-White House conversations.” He also described the “quote-approval” that even some well-respected media use. 

“It was a mistake to compromise The Daily Northwestern’s coverage of an event that took place right out in the open. In doing so, though, it accommodated a few powerless people, as opposed to accommodating many powerful people as so often happens in major media outlets: Eric Wemple, Washington Post media critic

Wemple sees the lesson for Crosson and student journalists is not to go too far. “It was a mistake to compromise The Daily Northwestern’s coverage of an event that took place right out in the open. In doing so, though, it accommodated a few powerless people, as opposed to accommodating many powerful people as so often happens in major media outlets. In a segment this afternoon, Fox News host Dana Perino asked, ‘Do we have a responsibility to teach college students what journalism is?’”

“Of course — preferably by example,” Wemple concluded.

Columnist Heidi Stevens of the Chicago Tribune, wrote Nov. 12, “I cringed a bit when I read the editorial. Then, again, I cringe when I think back to at least a third of the work I did at my college newspaper.”

She interviewed the senior and staff photographer of The Daily who agreed to take down photos from his Twitter account after protesters contacted him. Although he said he learned from covering protests in Argentina last winter, Stevens reported that he said he understood the protests were public, but he would have a conversation with anyone who objected to one of his photos.

Stevens’ conclusion: Both journalists and protesters need to realize their actions will be under a microscope. “If these students want to practice professional journalism, the backlash to Sunday’s editorial offers a lesson that’s just as important as anything the students will learn in the classroom, any communication case law or copyediting rules or multimedia skills. The public is rarely kind. Your critics are legion.”

The dean of the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern Charles Whitaker wrote his own response Nov. 12 and supported the independent journalists while also chiding them. 

“Journalism—when executed fairly, accurately and independently —allows a society to see itself in all its splendor and strife,” he wrote, but also, “…when done poorly or unfairly, journalism can most certainly scar individuals and communities. Indeed, there is no shortage of instances in which journalists have parachuted into settings, particularly those occupied by vulnerable or marginalized people, and provided accounts that were devoid of any sense of cultural competency.”

“Journalism—when executed fairly, accurately and independently —allows a society to see itself in all its splendor and strife,” he wrote, but also, “…when done poorly or unfairly, journalism can most certainly scar individuals and communities: dean of the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern Charles Whitaker

He applauded their coverage, saying it was “in no way beyond the bounds of fair, responsible journalism.” And he said he was “deeply troubled by the vicious bullying and badgering” they had to endure for it. He said he understood why they felt the need to apologize, but their “well-intentioned gesture sends a chilling message” that they must listen to the loudest voices and now serve as independent producers of the truth.

He ended with his version of the lesson to learn from this: “My hope is that we at Northwestern can model ways in which a community can promote freedom of the press while also demonstrating how we conduct healthy and respectful debate. I would be happy to do my part to facilitate that dialogue.”

Obviously increasing diversity in the newsroom, standing firm with stories that need telling, being the voice of all your audience and encouraging a dialogue about problems are all lessons that can come from this incident. Deciding when or if something should be taken down from a website is a tough call, one that required some staff conversation before an incident occurs. (See what JEA’s Scholastic Press Rights Committee has to say about this.)

Perhaps there’s one more bit of advice that came from freelance journalist and editor Glenn Fleishman, who  tweeted the buried lesson: “The editorial was so vague that I don’t even know what you think you did and what you were apologizing for, nor what you’re promising to stop doing. It seems like the university excessively punishes students for protesting? Isn’t that the story?” 

I agree. That may be the best advice of all.

Crosson wrote in his editorial, “As a campus newspaper covering a student body that can be very easily and directly hurt by the University, we must operate differently than a professional publication in these circumstances.” 

Later, he added, “While some universities grant amnesty to student protesters, Northwestern does not.” That seems to have led The Daily Northwestern staff members to feel they needed to show more empathy. But it also should have led them to question why their university doesn’t grant amnesty to protesters. 

At any level, student journalists need to recognize and explore the problems their audiences face. It may not be exactly what crowds are protesting – but it may be even deeper and more important than that.

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