Journalism standards need defending in this climate of assault and deterioration, but I never imagined that would include hordes of professional journalists going on social media to meanly bash the daylights out of some college students who work for a campus newspaper.
Such was the reaction to an editorial published Sunday in The Daily Northwestern, the news outlet for Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, that apologized for its coverage of student protests at a campus speech by Jeff Sessions, the former US attorney general and US senator from Alabama.
The protesters accused Sessions and the Trump administration of racism and fascism, manifested primarily in their anti-immigration policies. The Daily published photos of protesters climbing through windows and engaging with police, then followed that up by texting to some protesters to ask if they would consent to interviews. You waiting for the controversial part? For the mistake that required the apology? That was it.
Remarkably, protesters complained that The Daily’s actions invaded their privacy and exposed them to potential harm. Northwestern, a private university, did threaten discipline. Still, protesters with the courage to physically and publicly disrupt a campus event somehow felt threatened by reporters’ text messages and by posted photos that gave them the exact public attention they were seeking in the first place. (Maybe next time, wear a mask; those “V for Vendetta” ones are really cool.)
In September, The Harvard Crimson newspaper caught flak from a group protesting anti-immigration policies and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement because The Crimson had the temerity to contact ICE after the protest to seek comment. The flak has since expanded to a boycott of The Crimson and just this week the Harvard SGA endorsed the protesters’ criticisms of The Crimson. When the controversy first arose, The Crimson responded with an editorial strongly defending its actions and the very basic journalistic principle of story balance. At Northwestern, however, the complaining protesters were vociferous enough, including on social media, to shame The Daily into deleting some photos and writing its overwrought apology, which includes a pledge to re-examine student reporter practices going forward.
A public protester may indeed feel alarmed if a reporter knows who they are. But that unreasonable expectation of privacy can’t become a reason for journalists to self-subvert their reporting. Cold-call inquiries to newsmakers (or in this case cold-text) are Reporter 101. Save perhaps for cold intrusions on grieving families forced into the news by fresh tragedy, outreaches seeking news should not be cause for apology. Nor should be publication of photos or videos that inform the community of newsworthy moments and that record them for history. Visuals further serve to promote essential civic debate in ways that words alone cannot. Their value is such that news organizations can’t relinquish a publication decision to the preferences of the newsmakers. That’s Reporter 102.
No matter how fundamentally easy these decisions seem, I ask the non-students reading this: Would each one of us have certainly made a different decision if we were in the shoes of The Daily’s student journalists, at that age, still learning the craft, under that avalanche of criticism, and still having to face our news subjects in class every day? You sure? Grown-up hindsight is so easy.
In my ethics course, I sometimes do get alarmed by my students’ cautious, conservative solutions to some of the enduring dilemmas inherent in journalistic practices. They value the ethical principle to “minimize harm,” even though that is often at the expense of public knowledge. At least they are thinking about the consequences of media actions, which may be more necessary than ever for journalists of all kinds to do. That’s in part because the internet gives magnified reach and permanence to the harmful effects of publication misjudgments. You can’t do fleeting damage in a small corner of the world anymore.
Concern for consequences is vital also in part because of the anti-minority sentiments prevailing in civic discourse and actions today. It is no longer possible – if it ever was – to reassure marginalized individuals and groups such as opponents of anti-immigration policies that no harm or retaliation could come to them from the haters in society, or even from their own governments.
The Daily Northwestern may have indeed resolved its dilemma wrongly. But at least those students are thinking about the wide-ranging impacts of published words and pictures. That’s more than I can say for some grown-ups on social media the past few days.
Tom Arenberg is an instructor of news media at the University of Alabama. He worked for The Birmingham News and the Alabama Media Group for 30 years. He published this commentary originally as a post on his blog, The Arenblog. About News is a BirminghamWatch feature that publishes commentary by those who teach the craft and think about the values and performance of today’s journalism, a civic flashpoint. BirminghamWatch shares these articles on Facebook and Twitter and invites readers to join the conversation about their news in those forums.