As the newspaper’s apology makes clear, its protest reporting underwent something of a haircut. “Some protesters found photos posted to reporters’ Twitter accounts retraumatizing and invasive. Those photos have since been taken down,” notes the apology, which was signed by Editor in Chief Troy Closson and other newsroom leaders. Also: The Daily Northwestern removed the name of a protester from the coverage. “Any information The Daily provides about the protest can be used against the participating students — while some universities grant amnesty to student protesters, Northwestern does not,” reads the apology, which was posted on Sunday.
Hordes of non-student journalists descended on Twitter to express their disgust. This was a public event! On what basis could any self-respecting outlet bail on reporting that captured such material?
But as we gathered our thoughts for a post expanding on the public-sphere principle, we paused for a second to ask: How good is your own record on public accountability? How good is the mainstream media’s record?
In need of some improvement, is the answer.
For instance, we here at the Erik Wemple Blog routinely allow spokespeople at the major networks to sidestep use of their names in this space. Instead, they’re routinely identified as a “CNN spokesperson” or as an “MSNBC spokesperson” or as a “Fox News spokesperson.” Such a formulation allows these folks to say stuff that may be baseless or ridiculous without fear of reputational harm. Accountability, accordingly, suffers.
Now consider political reporting. Big-time news outlets are famous for granting sources anonymity to “speak candidly” about the ho-hum matter at hand. Though anonymous sources are critical to investigative reporting — The Post’s Bob Woodward is a big believer in them — namelessness has become the default mode in too many reportorial settings. Sources expect it; reporters often volunteer it. Last month, the Washington Examiner scored a resounding scoop by publishing audio of White House counselor Kellyanne Conway speaking candidly — and obnoxiously — to a “breaking news reporter." The piece blew up because it sounded as though a news outlet had lifted the protective veil hovering over most press-White House conversations.
In 2012, the New York Times called attention to the practice of quote approval, in which journalists interview subjects and then later submit interview excerpts for approval. The newspaper subsequently announced a policy prohibiting this practice. Quote-approval requests, however, endure. Are journalists across the industry stiff-arming them?
Now, back to the decisions of the Daily Northwestern. The newspaper made changes based on objections from protesters and students regarding a public event. Such decisions are indeed ill-considered, and Closson himself conceded in an excellent Twitter thread that the apology went a bit far in some areas:
Charles Whitaker, dean of Northwestern’s Medill journalism school, argued that the apology column was a “well-intentioned gesture” that “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.” (The Daily Northwestern is an independent, student-run paper). In his Twitter thread, Closson argued that the statement’s shortcomings stemmed from “how challenging it can be for marginalized students to navigate situations like those this past week while balancing our identities, roles as student journalists and positions as students at NU.”
That’s critical context. It was a mistake to compromise the Daily Northwestern’s coverage of an event that took place right out in the open. In doing so, though, it accommodated a few powerless people, as opposed to accommodating many powerful people as so often happens in major media outlets. In a segment this afternoon, Fox News host Dana Perino asked, “Do we have a responsibility to teach college students what journalism is?”
Of course — preferably by example.