The first job of journalists is to document what is happening in the world. Last week, that meant reporters for The Daily Northwestern, the student-run daily newspaper at Northwestern University, covered an on-campus speech by former U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions and an accompanying protest.
We understand that some students were angered by Sessions’ invitation and appearance on campus, and we certainly respect the right of students and others to protest.
What is baffling, however, is criticism of the newspaper for how it covered these events. According to Charles Whitaker, the dean of the Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications at Northwestern, the paper’s journalists have been subject to “vicious bullying and badgering” from activists about their coverage of the Nov. 5 events. Many of the complaints were about journalists posting photographs of the protest on social media and reaching out to protesters to interview them. Some students feared they could be disciplined by university officials for participating in the protest and blamed the journalists for documenting and disseminating their participation.
As a result, four days after stories about Sessions’ speech and the protest appeared in The Daily Northwestern, the paper ran an editorial apologizing for, well, doing journalism.
It apologized for contacting students who were at the protest to see if they wanted to talk about it. It apologized to those who felt traumatized by photographs of the protest and the campus police response to it. Photographs were deleted from social media and the name of a student that had appeared in the original article was removed.
The students at The Daily Northwestern are, of course, learning journalism and will make mistakes. The same is true for those of us who have been doing this for years. But, it seems they reacted too forcefully to complaints that didn’t merit such a dramatic response.
More importantly, protesters who are threatening the paper’s staff about their coverage of last week’s events — and the public in general — need to understand that the student journalists were simply documenting what happened at Northwestern. They had as much right to be at Sessions’ speech as those who were protesting, or simply sitting in the audience. And they had a responsibility to accurately and fairly report what they observed.
Dean Whitaker said it well: “I have also offered that it is naïve, not to mention wrong-headed, to declare, as many of our student activists have, that The Daily staff and other student journalists had somehow violated the personal space of the protestors by reporting on the proceedings, which were conducted in the open and were designed, ostensibly, to garner attention.”
Troy Closson, the editor in chief of The Daily Northwestern, told The Washington Post that the situation was difficult because the paper’s journalists were covering students who they would later see in classes or elsewhere on campus.
This builds on the false notion, perpetuated by press critics like President Donald Trump, that journalists are somehow “other.” Talking as if journalists aren’t members of our communities makes it easier to demonize them.
Journalists are people who are reporting about other people. We cover people who live and work in the communities where we live and work. We see and interact with readers and viewers and sources for stories at the grocery store, at school events, on the street. Some of them don’t have positive views of journalism or journalists, and are eager to let us know that.
Because it is the role of journalism to document our world, which includes covering contentious events and shedding light on wrongdoing, there will always be criticism of journalists. But bullying journalists for showing up, taking photographs and asking for interviews shows a fundamental, and dangerous, misunderstanding of the media’s role.