Culture

Northwestern’s Newspaper Doesn’t Get Journalism

Former U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions speaks about Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein during a farewell ceremony for Rosenstein at the Department of Justice in Washington, D.C., May 9, 2019. (Leah Millis/Reuters)
Were the press to refuse to report on uncomfortable subjects, that would not mean that uncomfortable things would no longer be happening.

The top editors of Northwestern University’s prestigious student newspaper, the Daily Northwestern, recently published an insane editorial apologizing for (wait for it!) covering a Jeff Sessions event on campus.

Why? Well, because some people got offended, of course.

Now, to anyone with even half a brain, a newspaper apologizing because a reporter did some reporting makes about as much sense as a doctor apologizing because he gave someone a diagnosis. It’s hard to believe that this actually happened, but it did. Worse: It happened at Northwestern University, home of the Medill School of Journalism, which is widely considered to be one of the best journalism schools in the country. Many Medill students even work at the publication that issued the apology.

The absurd, almost satirical-sounding editorial begins by stating: “Last week, The Daily was not the paper that Northwestern students deserve.”

“On Nov. 5, former Attorney General Jeff Sessions spoke on campus at a Northwestern University College Republicans event,” the piece continues. “The Daily sent a reporter to cover that talk and another to cover the students protesting his invitation to campus, along with a photographer. 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 editorial explains that an “area of our reporting that harmed many students was our photo coverage of the event.”

“Some protesters found photos posted to reporters’ Twitter accounts retraumatizing and invasive,” it states. “Those photos have since been taken down.”

“While our goal is to document history and spread information, nothing is more important than ensuring that our fellow students feel safe — and in situations like this, that they are benefitting from our coverage rather than being actively harmed by it,” it continues. “We failed to do that last week, and we could not be more sorry.”

The Daily went on to note that it had removed “the name of a protester initially quoted in our article on the protest,” because “some students have also faced threats for being sources in articles published by other outlets.”

The editorial continues with the following:

“Ultimately, The Daily failed to consider our impact in our reporting surrounding Jeff Sessions. We know we hurt students that night, especially those who identify with marginalized groups.”

Now, (as Reason’s Robby Soave also notes), although the editorial makes numerous references to its reporting here having “hurt” students, it did not actually provide an example of even a single student that had been actually harmed in any real way because of its coverage. Soave’s best guess is that some students claimed to find the material in the reporting to be upsetting.

It is hard for me to imagine what kind of world we would live in if professional journalists started taking this kind of approach to their reporting. Don’t report on something if it’s going to upset someone else? I mean, are you f***ing kidding me? A lot of the news that journalists report on could be upsetting to the people who read it — because, unfortunately, many things happen in the world that are upsetting. War, murder, rape: upsetting stuff. Should reporters refuse to cover all of those stories, too? Should every single newspaper in the entire world stick to writing stories about gluten-free bake sales and disabled puppies finding their forever homes? Is that really what the best and the brightest journalism students want to see happen?

It’s painfully stupid, but actually, it’s so much more than that. It’s harmful. See, a press that refused to report on uncomfortable subjects would not actually create a situation where uncomfortable, even terrible, things would no longer be happening. It would simply mean that we would all have wool pulled over our eyes about them. Absolutely no one should be arguing for a system aimed at increasing ignorance. There are cruel, terrible things that happen in this world that are even more traumatizing than the existence of Jeff Sessions. Yes, it can be painful to read about them — but we can never hope to change what we cannot first recognize.

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