US College Newspaper’s Apology Leads to Debate over News Reporting


15 November, 2019

Student leaders of the newspaper covering Northwestern University have faced two waves of criticism recently.

Readers were critical of the newspaper's reporting about protests at the university, just north of Chicago, Illinois. Opponents of former United States Attorney General Jeff Sessions organized the demonstrations to protest his visit to Northwestern.

Student activists criticized the paper for publishing photographs of demonstrators. The pictures showed the university's police force blocking protesters as they tried to get inside an event where Sessions was to speak.
Within days, editors at The Daily Northwestern decided to apologize. But the apology they published Monday led to criticism from reporters and journalists across the country.

In this Friday, April 29, 2016, photo, people stand near the entrance gate to Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill. (Chris Walker/Chicago Tribune via AP)
In this Friday, April 29, 2016, photo, people stand near the entrance gate to Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill. (Chris Walker/Chicago Tribune via AP)

The newspaper removed the photos from its website. The editors said they did not want students to be at risk of punishment by the school or online harassment. But working journalists said the editors should not feel any guilt for following widely used reporting practices.

The written apology

The Daily Northwestern noted that its "goal is to document history and spread information." But it argued that "nothing is more important than ensuring that our fellow students feel safe ... and ... are benefiting from our coverage rather than being actively harmed by it."

"We failed to do that last week, and we could not be more sorry," the paper's editors wrote. The editors admitted that they removed a protester's name from a story about the event at the person's request. And, they said they were sorry for using an official student directory to contact people who demonstrated at the event and ask them questions.

Professional reporters criticized the students' actions as wrongheaded, inexperienced and a troubling sign for the future of journalism. Others suggested that the students were right to consider the effects of questioning and taking pictures of the protesters but communicated that goal poorly.

Right to report on protests

By early this week, the student leaders of The Daily Northwestern were in shock. But the paper's editor-in-chief, Troy Closson, said he and the other journalists understand their right to report on protests. They just want to work with an understanding of other peoples' experiences and emotions.

Closson added that the editors did not plan to take back the apology. He said the message was directed toward the Northwestern community, especially non-white students who are in the minority at the school.

"There's a lot of students ... who feel we ... don't care about ... the student body that we're part of, but rather we're just there to extract a story and never talk to them again," Closson told The Associated Press. "That's the history and reputation we have."

The 21-year-old Closson, in his final year at Northwestern, is only the third black student to lead the newspaper since its establishment in 1881. He said he was the only black member of the team when he joined the paper in his first year. At the time, The Daily Northwestern lacked stories on students "who looked like me or had experiences like me," he added.

Closson said he and others leading the paper in recent years decided to change that. This included the creation of a team whose purpose was building diversity in its reporting.

Student journalists under attack

The Daily Northwestern operates independently from the university and its journalism school. Like other student journalists, its editors make careful decisions about how to cover their community and other students. The same goes for criticism of the newspaper's coverage.

The situation at Northwestern is the latest college-based criticism of traditional reporting methods during sometimes large and intense demonstrations at school events. These protests have often targeted former members of President Donald Trump's administration.

In October, student activists demanded an apology from another college newspaper, The Harvard Crimson. They were displeased with the paper for contacting U.S. Customs and Immigration Enforcement for a story on a campus protest against the agency. The newspaper argued it was the right decision.

Kenna Griffin, president of the College Media Association, said the Northwestern students should not have apologized. She would have urged them to put out a statement explaining how they produce stories, she said.

"We have an administration (in the White House) right now who feels that anytime they don't like something reported, they can label it untrue or fake," Griffin said. "This idea is being adopted by the public. So there's definitely a need for journalists at every level to explain how the information is gathered and the decisions they make."

By last Sunday, Closson said he and other editors felt they owed readers a fuller explanation of their decisions about the paper's reports on Sessions and the protests. He did not expected many people outside the campus community would read it.

Charles Whitaker heads the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University. He called the written apology "heartfelt though not well-considered." He suggested it was in reaction to intense "public shaming" from student activists following the newspaper's coverage of Sessions' speech and the protests.

Whitaker wrote that the apology was a sign of their strong sense of community responsibility and the considerations they make for others. But he added that this should be a warning to all reporters. It suggests that they may no longer be able to independently cover the news if they feel forced to change how they do so because of public pressure.

He also defended the students against criticism from professional reporters.

"You are not living with them through this ... facing the ... hostility that has been directed their way on ... social media," he wrote.

I'm Jonathan Evans.

And I'm Pete Musto.

Kathleen Foody reported this story for The Associated Press. Pete Musto adapted the AP report for VOA Learning English. George Grow was the editor.

We want to hear from you. How do students view the newspapers at universities in your country? Write to us in the Comments Section or on 51VOA.COM.

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Words in This Story

editor(s) – n. a person whose job is to prepare something written to be published or used

journalist(s) – n.a person whose job centers on the activity of collecting, writing, and editing news stories for newspapers, magazines, television, or radio

harassmentn. the act of annoying or bothering someone in a constant or repeated way

practice(s) – n. something that is done often or regularly

benefit(ing) – v. to be helped

extractv. to get something such as information from something

reputationn. the common opinion that people have about someone or something

diversityn. the state of having people who are different races or who have different cultures in a group or organization

labelv. to name or describe (someone or something) in a specified way

adopt(ed) – v. to begin to use or have a different manner, method

shamingn. the act of forcing someone to act in a specified way by causing feelings of shame or guilt

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