The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

I write for the Daily Northwestern. We shouldn’t apologize for doing our jobs.

My colleagues thought we should let other students determine what is and is not appropriate to cover.

Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill. (Chris Walker/Chicago Tribune/AP)

The staff of the Daily Northwestern, the student newspaper I write for as an opinion columnist, is incredibly dedicated to its work. Students skip classes and meals to spend countless hours in the newsroom, documenting events and informing readers. But this week, they apologized for practicing journalism at all.

At first, the events seemed ordinary enough — just a typical week on campus. The College Republicans invited former attorney general Jeff Sessions to speak at an event on Nov. 5. As anyone would have expected, a group of students held a counter-event, “Night of Action at Northwestern University,” holding up signs and chanting slogans. Meanwhile, another group of students, organized through a private Facebook event, aimed to stop Sessions from speaking altogether. After his speech began, they attempted to break into the lecture hall but were stopped by police officers. They banged on doors and yelled obscenities, trying to shout him down.

Knowing that our readers would take an interest in these goings-on, the Daily sent two reporters, one to cover the talk and one the protest, as well as a photographer. They asked for interviews, took photographs and jotted down quotes. They provided live coverage that night via Twitter, and the story ran the next day.

Then, the responses poured in. On social media, some students expressed anger that their pictures were taken and that the Daily’s reporters seemed to feel entitled to a story. They felt that reporters hadn’t considered their safety, and that the Daily disrespected them as student activists. Some of those students contacted staff members to voice their fury. (Those images have since been removed.) Soon after the event, the Daily’s reporters noticed that Northwestern students no longer wanted to talk to them on the record, citing distrust of the publication.

I only learned about this backlash when the editor in chief called a mandatory staff meeting on Nov. 10. Its purpose was for us to discuss how we could do better in the future and avoid harming marginalized groups when reporting. The consensus was that the paper messed up, not in covering the event itself, but in the way we covered it: posting photos of protesters without their permission, finding their phone numbers and asking them to speak to us about an event they found traumatic.

Staffers thought that the protesters had legitimate concerns about being disciplined by the university, and the Daily should protect the protesters from punitive measures. Various staffers also described Sessions’s appearance on campus as traumatizing, suggesting that, during such events, it’s best not to act as a reporter but as a fellow student, making sure the traumatized are okay. We are all student reporters, and the backlash from the student community took a personal tone. It was so strong that Daily reporters questioned their own work, wondering if the paper should have contacted protesters beforehand, asking what would and would not be acceptable to cover. The editors informed us that they would write an apology to the student body.

On Nov. 11, the Daily’s editorial staff published that statement, which said, “We recognize that we contributed to the harm students experienced.” The editors specifically apologized for photo coverage that made other students feel unsafe, and for using the university directory to find students’ phone numbers and text them with interview requests, adding that “being contacted like this is an invasion of privacy.”

The real threat to free speech on campus isn’t coming from the left

At first, the responses to the statement were local, coming mostly from other students or people in Illinois, but as the day progressed, journalists from seemingly every major publication in the country commented on the Daily’s apology. Our editor in chief, Troy Closson, posted a thread on Twitter addressing the response on social media. That evening, with the tweetstorm in full force, I walked into the newsroom to bring in my column for the week. The newsroom was mostly empty. People there were visibly shaken, trying to distract themselves and de-stress with episodes of “Real Housewives” and “Love Island.” An editor called an impromptu meeting, emphasizing that the Daily would stick by its statement and that we should not attract any further media attention. Furthermore, the Daily would not publish anything related to the controversy: no news articles, no opinion pieces and no letters to the editor.

That night, staffers talked about how the “old media” is dead, and that because most of the notable critics of the statement write for legacy print publications, the Daily must be doing something right. What I’m sure they meant is that the new era of journalism should account for the perspectives of people whose voices haven’t been heard in the past, and that reporters should be more sensitive to their subjects. These are admirable goals.

What isn’t admirable is acquiescence. The Daily apologized for standard journalistic practices. Taking photos of a public event and using the university directory to look up the people involved are actions every reputable news outlet would consider aboveboard — necessary, even, to the basic project of reporting. Finding out the truth is inherently intrusive and invasive. No reporter has ever broken a major story without stepping on toes. If journalists are restricted by the need to ensure that subjects are completely happy with the coverage, they can’t do their jobs.

The opposition to normal reporting practices isn’t limited to our campus: It seems to be gaining traction with many of my peers. Recently, the Harvard Undergraduate Council voted to express solidarity with a group boycotting the Harvard Crimson because its reporters asked for comment from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement when writing about a protest calling for the agency’s abolition. There, too, students considered standard journalistic practices morally unacceptable and now refuse to grant interviews to the paper.

The Daily’s editorial staff puts blood, sweat and tears into the newspaper. It was in a tough situation that the online outcry made tougher. Facing a torrent of anger from fellow students, the staff felt that it had to atone. But reporters shouldn’t defer decisions about what can and cannot be published to their subjects. Editors shouldn’t back down when challenged by the mob. And my generation of journalists shouldn’t assume that we know what’s right just because we’re the next wave.

Reporting can be difficult, especially when the subject doesn’t want to be covered. It’s uncomfortable to feel like you’re encroaching on someone’s space in pursuit of a story. It’s not fun to have doors slammed in your face or be hung up on. Finding out the truth intrinsically involves conflict. If readers, writers and editors can’t tolerate that conflict, we’re in trouble.