Protecting the principles of journalism

On Tuesday, Nov. 5, former Attorney General Jeff Sessions addressed the students of Northwestern University in a speech that was met with protests. Such dissent was targeted largely toward Sessions’ enduring reputation as a proponent of stringent immigration policies and regulating sanctuary areas for marginalized groups.

However, it was not the incident itself that has since garnered extensive backlash from across the political spectrum but the method by which student reporters from the school’s flagship newspaper covered it. Photos on The Daily Northwestern staff’s Twitter page were criticized for their invasiveness and explicit depiction of violence, and the identities of students originally quoted in the article reporting on the event were since omitted. The ensuing onslaught of condescending remarks about the current editorial board by Northwestern alumni and professional journalists called their coverage “profoundly embarrassing” and “a travesty” on public Facebook forums. 

The primary grievance voiced by these commenters was the issue of preserving the privacy of the protesters, many of whom are current students at the school. Minority groups, who felt victimized by the very presence of Sessions himself, additionally criticized the article’s depiction of the protesters as overly aggressive and violent. 

In the wake of the backlash, the editorial board of The Daily has issued an apology, reflecting on its insensitivity in the article. Dean Charles Whitaker of Medill, the university’s journalism school, also released a statement in the following days. However, where the staff had accepted responsibility for the outcry surrounding its coverage, Whitaker defended the students, stating that the staff was keeping true to its purpose as journalists. 

As a student journalist myself, I find it disconcerting that student publications must succumb to the will of public criticism; if every group or individual had the autonomy to censor an article or report that they found disagreeable, our media outlets would merely be puppets of communities whose complaints are most pronounced. Moreover, the history of the United States is one founded in the belief that freedom of speech and the press is integral to a truly democratic society. Thus, it is unreasonable to limit the voices of young journalists who themselves are in the midst of finding their personal intellectual growth as they work toward a career of their own. 

While there certainly have been instances in the past of journalists overstepping their boundaries and publishing poorly executed articles, the aforementioned piece by The Daily should not be considered such a blemish. In regards to privacy concerns, the protest was a public event aimed against a national political figure; protesters should have been aware of the consequences, both good and bad, that public demonstration may have on their personal image. Furthermore, it should not be the responsibility of reporters to retroactively omit a quote or source in response to backlash. It should not be the responsibility of reporters to apologize for publishing an objective report of a controversial topic. 

Under a political climate that is increasingly divisive and where executive leadership unwaveringly asserts the prominence of “fake-news” in our media today, it’s no wonder that student journalists are feeling the pressure of cultivating content that appeases the masses. Yet, what is gained in preserving one’s reputation is lost in integrity and allegiance to the very foundation of journalism itself. 

Effective journalism is meant to inspire strong emotional reactions in readers — whether it be anger, enthusiasm, disbelief, pride. From prominent media outlets to student publications, it is imperative that reporters recognize the weight and influence of their words — and the importance of standing by them. 

By Ashley Liang, Design and Media editor-in-chief
Photo courtesy of Ignacio Calderon of The Columbia Chronicle