In the current political climate, there has been growing tension between the press and the people, particularly those involved in politics or activism. Even straight news stories are often accompanied by politically sensitive themes, causing criticism of the press. A recent event at Northwestern University highlighted this tension and emphasized the necessity of a free press.
In early November, Former Attorney General Jeff Sessions spoke at Northwestern University, prompting riotous protests from student activists and causing police involvement. Naturally, the student newspaper, The Daily Northwestern, sent photographers and reporters to cover the protest.
The newspaper, however, faced backlash from the activists who claimed the event was of a sensitive nature, implicating police action toward students, and should not have been covered. The newspaper issued a lengthy apology editorial, a decision which triggered nationwide criticism against staff for bending to baseless criticism.
“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,” wrote The Daily Northwestern editorial board.
Activists pushed back against the paper particularly for documenting the event through photos and using the student directory to reach out for comments, claiming that it was an invasion of privacy.
“We weren’t there to get in the newspaper. We weren’t there to get national attention. People still hold dear that their journalistic duty is the most important thing, and that’s not the case,” said one protestor who was photographed.
This student incorrectly analyzed the situation, which was not an issue of priority or the aims of the protest. Journalists do not report to give attention to those who seek it, but to document facts which will connect the general public with relevant events. This responsibility will never change. Their coverage of this protest did not deserve criticism, nor did any action warrant an apology from the paper, which fulfilled its purpose by covering an important campus event.
Professors in Northwestern’s Medill School of journalism, one of the top journalism programs in the country, were equally disappointed in the publication. “The first thing I would say is journalists should never apologize for doing their job. This is a teachable moment. These are students involved here,” said Caryn Ward, a Medill professor. “You’re not going to make everybody happy. You’re not here to make friends. You’re here to cover the news,” continued Ward.
Charles Whitaker, the dean of Medill, agreed. “It is naïve, not to mention wrongheaded, 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 protesters by reporting on the proceedings, which were conducted in the open and were designed, ostensibly, to garner attention,” said Whitaker.
The positions of these Northwestern faculty members were echoed nationally by journalists and media outlets, saddened by the approach of the paper. “How is it possible that a newspaper at what is allegedly a top journalism school would apologize for the basics of reporting? This is a travesty and an embarrassment,” said Glenn Kessler of The Washington Post.
This event sparked such national uproar because it is not a new occurrence; activists and journalists have struggled on college campuses for years.
The New York Times cited incidents from the past few decades, illustrating a pattern of tension between students and the press. In 2015, Wesleyan University published a student’s column which criticized the Black Lives Matter movement, prompting fellow students to request that funds be denied from the paper. That same year, staff at the University of Missouri, also an esteemed journalism program, called to remove a student hoping to photograph a protest of racial issues. Similar issues ran rampant on campuses in the 1990s and early 2000s as well.
Earlier this year, the Harvard Crimson dealt with similar pushback, but in a far more favorable manner. Students demanded a boycott of the paper after it interviewed Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents for commentary on an anti-ICE protest on campus. Students argued that these interviews violated the safety and privacy of protestors.
Kristine Guillaume, the paper’s president, and Angela Fu, the managing editor, did not succumb to this pressure. Instead, they firmly asserted that their actions were rooted in a core principle of journalism: to contact every view relevant to a story.
The Crimson faced even harsher criticism than that of the Daily, as student groups as large as the Harvard College Democrats have signed petitions to boycott the paper. Thus far, the paper has maintained its position and will not reform its policy.
Many attribute these incidents on college campuses to a larger issue – the tense relationship between the press and those they cover. The New York Post published a scathing critique of the Northwestern paper, titled “Northwestern’s bungling student journalists were just copying the professionals.”
The article argues that too often good journalists, doing no more than their job, face more criticism than those who gloss over facts or publish utter falsehoods since these things rarely rile the public as much as the truth.
The author, Kevin Williamson, referred to the Northwestern journalists as “sniveling kids,” but compares their actions to those of the New York Times, which once changed the factual headline “Trump Urges Unity Vs. Racism” when political twitter criticized them. Naturally, student papers which are generally produced in full by students without faculty moderators, take direction from established, esteemed publications such as the Times.
Ultimately, the incidents at Northwestern, Harvard and elsewhere denote a tension with the media which puts the field of journalism at risk. Many, particularly activists or those involved in political protests, misunderstand the role of reporters. In an era where issues are particularly tense and discussions are heated, coverage of these trends cannot please everyone, but that is not the point. Protesters are better served to focus on their goals rather than berate reporters for doing their job.