Don’t apologize for covering your campus.
Being a student journalist is one of the toughest reporting gigs there is. You have to cover your peers, your professors and your institution under the ever-watchful eye of hypersensitive administrators and the unrelenting criticism of fellow students.
So we begin with a sense of empathy for the editors of Northwestern University’s campus paper, The Daily.
It’s there, at a newspaper we’re sad to say, that the latest chapter in American universities’ increasing aversion to free speech is being written. And this time it suggests that even a free press isn’t free to simply state the facts of what’s happening on campus.
This all began well for The Daily. On Nov. 5, former Attorney General Jeff Sessions, a conservative appointee of President Donald Trump, came to speak at Northwestern. The Daily, seeing the speech would be newsworthy in itself and draw newsworthy protests, dispatched two reporters and a photographer.
The reporters and the photographer did their jobs, contacting likely student protestors before the event and publishing photos and details on social media and in the paper thereafter.
That’s when the trouble started. After the coverage posted, The Daily’s editors published an abjectly apologetic editorial that demonstrated Northwestern has badly failed these student journalists.
The paper’s editors apologized for “contributing to the harm students experienced” and for “retraumatizing” them with “invasive” reporting. The trauma, in this case, appears to be concern of potential retribution by the university against students involved in the protests, some peaceful, some less so. The invasion appears to be using a phone directory to reach out to student protestors.
The paper, which operates independently of the university, announced that its first goal as an institution is “ensuring that our fellow students feel safe.”
Let’s be clear. Contacting people involved in newsworthy events is just called reporting and it’s absolutely appropriate. And if the university punishes students involved in protests, students journalists are not to blame.
The first goal of a newspaper, meanwhile, should be to cover the news without fear or favor.
The paper’s editors wrote they will work to “rebuild trust” they fear was lost through their accurate coverage. But the fastest way for any news organization to lose trust is to attempt to curry favor with one side or the other.
We think Northwestern’s editors had it right when they sent their journalists to cover this event. And their journalists did what they needed to do by covering it. Photographing and writing about people involved in a public protest does not violate anyone’s privacy, particularly when some of those people agreed to be interviewed.
That never needs an apology. It’s just what journalists do.
We end with this coda. It’s unfortunate that American universities, in general, are becoming ever more shy about a fulsome discussion of ideas, and we aren’t surprised the activist students attacked journalists for covering both sides of a story. Northwestern’s president, Morton O. Schapiro, has at least defended the notion that protesters may not physically hurt anyone nor prevent the free speech of others through shutdown protests. That is thin protection, but more than is available at too many institutions now.
However, we note that Schapiro has said since that perhaps Sessions should not have been invited in the first place because it was “polarizing.”
If that’s the standard now for acceptable speech, higher education and journalism aren’t the only things in trouble.
— DALLAS MORNING NEWS