Chicago, IL – Northwestern University’s student newspaper embarrassed their own school of journalism by posting an apology for their “retraumatizing and invasive” coverage of former U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ speech on their campus.
Sessions was a guest at a sanctioned College Republicans event held Nov. 5 on the university’s campus.
The university’s daily newspaper, The Daily Northwestern, covered the event and the protesters outside just as they were supposed to, and the trigger-sensitive classmates who had been captured protesting had a fit.
So the school paper apologized for doing its job.
“The Daily sent a reporter to cover that talk and another to cover the students protesting his invitation to campus, along with a photographer,” The Daily Northwestern explained in an apologetic opinion column published on Nov. 10. “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.”
The apology went on to describe Sessions’ speech as a “traumatic event” and promised that the publication had since removed from its website and its reporters’ social media all the pictures of protesters.
The Daily Northwestern had also interviewed some of the students who were protesting and quoted them in their coverage, which is standard protocol for news reporting.
But Northwestern’s school paper apologized for quoting the students and using their names, and removed all of that from their coverage as well.
The decision to post the apology was met by criticism throughout the media industry, but none more pointed than that by the head of their own university’s journalism school.
Medill School of Journalism Dean Charles Whitaker said in a statement that he had also received complaints from angry activists like the ones The Daily Northwestern was responding to.
Whitaker said he explained to those students that the newspaper had an obligation to capture those events for their readers and for posterity.
“Journalism—when executed fairly, accurately and independently —allows a society to see itself in all its splendor and strife,” the dean of Northwestern University’s journalism school wrote. “It often is our only chronicle of the people and events that shape and govern our existence. Conversely, when done poorly or unfairly, journalism can most certainly scar individuals and communities.”
“Indeed, there is no shortage of instances in which journalists have parachuted into settings, particularly those occupied by vulnerable or marginalized people, and provided accounts that were devoid of any sense of cultural competency,” Whitaker continued.
“But let me be perfectly clear, the coverage by The Daily Northwestern of the protests stemming from the recent appearance on campus by former Attorney General Jeff Sessions was in no way beyond the bounds of fair, responsible journalism,” the dean wrote. “The Daily Northwestern is an independent, student-run publication. As the dean of Medill, where many of these young journalists are trained, I am deeply troubled by the vicious bullying and badgering that the students responsible for that coverage have endured for the ‘sin’ of doing journalism.”
Whitaker acknowledged in his missive that the newspapers’ reporters and editors had had the best of intentions when they published the controversial reports and pictures, and when they published the inappropriate apology for the same material.
He also gave them a stern public lecture on the professional field which, as budding professional journalists, they are purportedly planning to enter.
“But I patently reject the notion that our students have no right to report on communities other than those from which they hail, and I will never affirm that students who do not come from marginalized communities cannot understand or accurately convey the struggles of those populations,” the dean wrote. “And, unlike our young charges at The Daily, who in a heartfelt, though not well-considered editorial, apologized for their work on the Sessions story, I absolutely will not apologize for encouraging our students to take on the much-needed and very difficult task of reporting on our life and times at Northwestern and beyond.”
“I understand why The Daily editors felt the need to issue their mea culpa,” Whitaker continued. “They were beat into submission by the vitriol and relentless public shaming they have been subjected to since the Sessions stories appeared. I think it is a testament to their sensitivity and sense of community responsibility that they convinced themselves that an apology would effect a measure of community healing.”