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A controversial apology

This case involves ethical issues that can be analyzed from both a journalistic and strategic communications perspective. There are questions of telling the truth, minimizing harm, racial dynamics and preserving the image of one of the nation’s most prestigious journalism schools.

WHAT: Northwestern University is a private institution of higher education in Evanston, Illinois, just north of Chicago. Its journalism school, Medill, has a host of prominent alumni. Its student newspaper, The Daily Northwestern, is independent and student-run.

In November 2019, a campus organization, the College Republicans, invited former U.S. attorney Jeff Sessions to speak. Students gathered to protest. The Daily Northwestern sent reporters and a photographer to cover Sessions’ speech and the protestors.

About 150 people took part in the demonstrations, according to reports by the Northwestern and Chicago newspapers; some of the demonstrators climbed through open windows and pushed through doors of the building where Sessions was speaking.

After photographs of the speech and protests appeared on line, some of the participants contacted the newspaper to complain. It became a “firestorm,” said Charles Whitaker, Medill’s dean — first from students who felt victimized, and then, after the Daily apologized for coverage that some students found “traumatizing and invasive,” from journalists and others who accused the newspaper of apologizing for simply doing its job.

The episode contributed to the criticism that today’s college students are overly sensitive and want to be protected from anything that they don’t approve of: “Snowflakes,” in the vernacular. Robby Soave, a columnist for right-leaning Reason magazine (slogan: Free Minds and Free Markets), called it “a sniveling, embarrassing apology.”

“Is this what students at the country’s most prestigious journalism school are learning these days?” Soave wrote. “That self-censorship is the paper’s best practice if someone is offended by what’s happening in the world?”

Some parts of the 700-word staff editorial stood out to critics, such as: “While our goal is to document history and spread information, nothing is more important than ensuring that our fellow students feel safe....”

The critics argued that the first part of that excerpt is a much more important journalistic principle than the last part.

The editorial also said the coverage could have been more sensitive: “We know we hurt students that night, especially those who identify with marginalized groups. According to the Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics, ‘Ethical journalism treats sources, subjects, colleagues and members of the public as human beings deserving of respect’.”

But the critics, including professional journalists who were Medill graduates, pointed out that the protestors were involved in a public act in a public place. They shouldn’t expect privacy, and if they were concerned about being interviewed, they could always have said no. The coverage was what journalists are supposed to do, they said, and journalists shouldn’t apologize for doing their jobs.

Addressing The Daily’s coverage of Sessions protests

Last week, The Daily was not the paper that Northwestern students deserve. Read the full editorial on The Daily Northwestern website


Related

The Harvard Crimson, in a September 2019 news story covering a campus rally that called for eliminating the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, sought comments from ICE officials.

ICE did not respond, but Harvard students and many others did, hundreds of them signing a petition that condemned the Crimson for seeking to get ICE’s take on what happened. Some also called on students not to comment to the Crimson unless and until it changes its policies.

But it’s a longstanding journalistic principle to cover all angles of a story. As the SPJ Code of Ethics puts it: “Diligently seek subjects of news coverage to allow them to respond to criticism or allegations of wrongdoing.”

And, as the Crimson’s president, Kristine E. Guillaume, said in a prepared statement, “Fundamental journalistic values obligate The Crimson to allow all subjects of a story a chance to comment.... This policy demonstrates a commitment to ensuring that the individuals and institutions we write about have an opportunity to respond to criticisms in order to ensure a fair and unbiased story.”

Question: Is an apology the appropriate response? Is there something else the student journalists should have done?

WHO: The decision-makers are the students who run the newspaper, especially its top editor. They also have become major stakeholders, whose reputations — and perhaps even their eventual journalism careers — could be at risk. The protestors are stakeholders, too, as is Northwestern and especially its Medill, which has long had a reputation as one of the nation’s leading schools of journalism.

WHY: This is a classic example of the ethical conflict between truth-telling and minimizing harm. In this case, after telling the truth, the student decision-makers sought to atone by attempting to minimize harm.

The Chicago Tribune, in a report written by Dawn Rhodes, the paper’s higher education reporter, quoted Whitaker, Medill’s dean, who cited the pressures the students faced.

In addition to the “firestorm” of criticism from protesters and journalists, Whitaker said, there was the very nature of the contemporary learning environment. “[Y]ou have a group of students who are taking classes in critical race theory, gender studies and who are sympathetic to the notion that media has not always reflected communities of color well,” he said.

“Against that backdrop, they do this soul-searching and they come to an ill-considered conclusion that they have somehow done something wrong by practicing journalism.”

Part of that academic environment, Rhodes wrote, is the “tightrope student journalists traverse in writing about their own classmates and campuses, managing disagreement about the role and responsibilities of journalism, and confronting the historic failure of a majority white industry to fairly cover people of color and minority communities.”

Margaret Sullivan, The Washington Post’s media columnist, quoted Astead Herndon, national political reporter at The New York Times, who said today’s generation of journalists instinctively “care about historically marginalized communities and rethink power dynamics.” Sometimes, Herndon added, “it is playing out in a raw and uninformed way.”

Racial dynamics were at play in the Northwestern case, where many of the protestors and complainers; the newspaper’s editor, Troy Closson; and even Northwestern’s dean are people of color.

“Being in this role,” Closson wrote in a Twitter thread reported by columnist Sullivan, “and balancing our coverage and the role of this paper on campus with my racial identity — and knowing how our paper has historically failed students of color, and particularly black students, has been incredibly challenging to navigate.”

HOW: The newspaper decided an apology was appropriate. And then its editor and others on the staff, battered by the ensuing criticism, explained themselves even further. Closson told columnist Sullivan that, in hindsight, parts of the editorial went too far, and that the original coverage was legitimate and in keeping with journalistic principles. “We covered the protest to its full extent and stand by our reporting,” he said.

So, as a learning experience, perhaps it had been effective. Dean Whitaker, who had been named to that position just six months before this episode, said he understood why the newspaper’s editors “felt the need to issue their mea culpa.

“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.

“I might offer, however, that their well-intentioned gesture sends a chilling message about journalism and its role in society. It suggests that we are not independent authors of the community narrative, but are prone to bowing to the loudest and most influential voices in our orbit.”

As for “the swarm of alums and journalists” who were raging on social media, “I say, give the young people a break,” Whitaker continued. “Don’t make judgments about them or their mettle until you’ve walked in their shoes.”

— by Fred Brown, SPJ Ethics Committee

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