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Student journalists and the pursuit of objectivity

The Daily Northwestern, the student newspaper of Northwestern University in Chicago, received a great deal of national media attention last month, and not for the right reasons. Outlets like the New York Times and the Washington Post documented the backlash from professional journalists over the paper’s needless apology for using the most basic of journalistic practices after protestors complained about them. The Times’ headline nicely sums up the regretful mea culpa: “The Daily Northwestern Apologizes to Student Protesters for Reporting.”

The protestors were criticizing the Daily’s coverage of a Nov. 5 speech by former Attorney General Jeff Sessions and the student demonstrations that took place outside the lecture hall. Some protestors tried to break into the event space and shut down the speech, leading to a confrontation with University police.

The chaos was documented by Daily photographer Colin Boyle, who then did what so many journalists do when covering breaking news: he posted the photos on Twitter. Meanwhile, Daily reporters frantically worked to finish their articles, using the University’s directory to obtain the phone numbers of protestors they wanted to interview. The reporters texted these individuals first, asking if they were willing to be interviewed. The Daily published several articles the following day covering both the speech and the surrounding protests.

Boyle and the Daily’s editors soon faced a wave of criticism for these three innocuous examples of basic journalistic practices. The criticism was fairly vicious, so vicious that the dean of Northwestern’s esteemed Medill School of Journalism, one of the top journalism schools in the country, characterized it as “vitriol and relentless public shaming.”

The Daily reversed course mere hours later, granting anonymity to a previously-named student protestor quoted in one of the articles and apologizing for using the University directory to contact potential sources. Boyle deleted some of the photos he posted on Twitter – specifically, those in which protestors could be easily identified.

Then came the editorial. It shocks me that one of the best student newspapers in the country published something so filled with motivated reasoning, shoddy arguments and pandering. My shock ultimately stems from the fact that some of the brightest journalists of my generation were either ignorant of basic journalistic practices, cowed by the opprobrium cast their way by angry protestors, or so biased by ideology that they abandoned several basic reporting techniques to appease activists’ demands.

The editorial justified Boyle’s decision to delete some of his photos from Twitter by arguing that, while they are the paper of record at the University and wanted to convey the significance of the event to its readership, “covering traumatic events requires a different response than many other stories.” Because some protestors found the photos retraumatizing, the newspaper stood behind their deletion, arguing that “nothing is more important than ensuring that our fellow students feel safe.”

This is absurd. A newsroom that prized the emotional comfort of its readers and sources above all else would not be able to report on a number of pressing topics. Reporting on terrorism or violent crime? Retraumatizing to witnesses and survivors. Reporting on white supremacist rallies? Retraumatizing to bystanders and counter-protestors, as well as certain historically marginalized groups that might be triggered by Nazi imagery in some of the photos.

This is not hypothetical – I’m sure there was considerable discussion in many newsrooms over which photos of the August 2017 white supremacist and neonazi “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Va. they should publish. Despite the fact that some of these images were surely difficult for readers to see, such as those displaying Nazi and white supremacist symbols brandished by rally participants, the New York Times, Washington Post, Boston Globe and other outlets published them nonetheless. If these news organizations can publish images of such a traumatizing event with so many hateful symbols brandished by some of the worst bigots in society, the Daily can surely publish pictures of what amounted to a fairly small, peaceful protest.

The editorial also mentions that some students found the photos “invasive.” The problem with this critique is that the protestors, who were demonstrating in a very public space at a prominent campus event, had no reasonable expectation of privacy. Furthermore, as the Los Angeles Times’ Robin Abcarian astutely points out, protests are often newsworthy by design, meant to loudly denounce, disrupt and raise awareness.

Regarding concerns about Daily reporters’ use of a University directory to find and contact potential sources, the editorial responded by admitting maximal guilt and characterizing these reporters’ actions as an “invasion of privacy.” Again, it’s bewildering to see such a celebrated newspaper condemn the use of a phone book. And again, the Daily puts forward a warped, overly cautious version of journalistic ethics in response to student criticism. Prohibiting the use of publicly-available contact information to find and reach out to potential sources would make reporting far more difficult to little or no benefit.

Finally, there was the paper’s decision to retroactively grant anonymity to a protestor quoted in one of the articles. As stated in the editorial, the paper was responding to worries that the University might see that individual’s name and discipline them for protesting.

I have never heard of a publication retroactively granting anonymity like this. The status of an interview and whether the source can be quoted should be determined before the interview begins. The quoted protestor chose to speak with the Daily reporter and face whatever risks accompany that decision – their words were not gathered surreptitiously and are fair game to use and attribute by name.

If you don’t find my arguments convincing, consider the fact that countless high-profile journalists have lambasted the Daily’s apology. Pulitzer-prize winning New York Times reporter Maggie Haberman expressed her concerns on Twitter, writing that “a student newspaper saying normal process is somehow a bad thing is incredibly troubling.” Legions of journalists expressed similar views on Twitter, including Washington Post reporter Amy Brittain, Los Angeles Times correspondent Matt Pearce, and Chicago Tribune reporter Gregory Pratt.

I want to emphasize that I’m not trying to attack the Daily or impute any nefarious intent. After all, the Daily’s apology appears to come from a sincere, commendable desire to better examine the impact of the paper’s coverage, especially its impact on marginalized groups that have long faced mistreatment from the media.

However, the Daily seems to have forgotten the numerous benefits of journalistic objectivity and let their political convictions cloud their judgement. Consider: would the Daily have been nearly as responsive to protestors’ concerns if they came from a group protesting China’s oppression of the Uigurs, for example? I doubt it, given that this is a much less salient issue for the many left-leaning reporters and editors that make up the lion’s share of most student newsrooms.

A media organization’s reach diminishes sharply when it abandons impartial reporting. Readers with different political beliefs reflexively distrust biased media organizations, which in turn limits the impact of even high-quality investigative reporting from these outlets. The pursuit of objectivity also improves accuracy by forcing reporters to examine their own biases and cover the many different sides of a story.

The Daily Northwestern’s misguided editorial and the ensuing controversy illustrate the need for journalists and public intellectuals to educate the public on reporting practices and journalistic ethics. Young reporters likewise need to recommit themselves to impartiality, as difficult as that may be, and realize that journalistic objectivity is often a better tool for rectifying injustice than advocacy journalism and other biased forms of media. Finally, editors at student newspapers need to stand up for long-held tenets of ethical journalism, even in the face of biting criticism from their peers.

carlen1@stolaf.edu
Sam Carlen ’20 is from St. Paul, Minnesota. His majors are economics and mathematics.