After The Daily Northwestern apologized for actions by its student journalists during a recent campus visit by former attorney general Jeff Sessions, the professional journalists began to pile on.
Robert Feder, known for his coverage of the Chicago media scene, described the Daily’s editorial as “bizzare” and “embarrassing.” Glenn Kessler, the fact checker for The Washington Post (my current employer), said it was a travesty and embarrassment. Stephanie Zimmerman, currently with the Chicago Sun-Times (my former internship employer) and an instructor for Medill’s high school summer journalism program, said it was “ridiculous” and “journalists at @thedailynu should not apologize for DOING THEIR JOB.”
Their words are incredibly disappointing.
None of these journalists appeared to have done any reporting into the underlying circumstances of the issue. The Daily apologized for two separate and specific concerns of their reporting process: First, that they published photographs of student protestors at the event, and second, that they reached out via text to some protestors to ask them for comment.
I’ll address the second concern early, because it’s a pretty simple circumstance: The source of the protestors’ contact information was the University Directory, which is not an open, publicly-accessible data source. The University’s online directory at https://directory.northwestern.edu is available to the public, but information such as physical addresses and phone numbers are only presented to on-campus network users and those who sign in with a Northwestern NetID, not members of the general public. This information is sourced from the many forms that students complete throughout their time at Northwestern, including for emergency contacts.
It is reasonable for all students — including these protestors — to expect that their private data provided to Northwestern for purposes such as campus emergency notifications would not be used by The Daily’s journalists for reporting, and such contact would be seen as an infiltration of privacy, in the same way that any professional journalist should not be using a non-public data source for their reporting. (And if you are, then we do need to be having a conversation — and it’ll be a conversation about journalism ethics, privacy expectations, and the law like GDPR and California’s data protection legislation.)
There’s also a pretty simple response to the professional journalists’ criticism of supposed infringements of the First Amendment: Northwestern University is a private university and the First Amendment does not apply. But I feel that this would be a disingenuous response to their criticisms, because I think they are upset that The Daily has seemingly caved to public pressure and refused to stand up for the principles of the First Amendment as they apply to the freedom of the press.
To this, I respond that the freedom of the press not includes the freedom to publish the news, but the freedom to not publish the news as well. As members of professional news organizations, these journalists should have recognized the right of the newsroom editors to make calls about what is and what is not published, and the right of the same editors to respond to their readers’ criticisms of those decisions.
I have witnessed many meetings where senior editors have decided not to run certain images or videos because they felt the specific impacts on victims outweighed the newsworthiness to the general public. The only difference here is The Daily is doing it after-the-fact, and admitting their first instincts were probably wrong.
The First Amendment’s freedom of the press clause protects journalists from retribution or punishment by the narrow interests of those wielding government power, but does not mean that journalists are immune from the general public’s criticisms of their coverage. In fact, journalists should be hyperaware of and sensitive to criticism, because the public cannot hold journalists accountable through the regular mechanisms of democracy’s government machinery in institutions like Congress.
Nor are journalists an unaccountable arm of the law and the secret police of the government, which is why institutions such as the storied Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications — which, as many of these journalists did correctly note, does not operate The Daily, but is where many of the student editors study — put such heavy emphasis on consequential rights and protections, such as shield laws for journalism, in its courses and teachings.
Many of these professional journalists criticizing The Daily entered the industry during a time when society did not have access to the same technological tools as we do today, such as facial recognition algorithms and tools for large-scale data mining. The best practices of journalism must learn and adapt to these new threats for democracy. If anything, these students have a better understanding of what’s necessary for journalism’s future if our liberal democracy is to survive.
Finally, I’ll note one observation for the pedagogy: Many of the professional journalists criticizing The Daily Northwestern are white. Many of the student editors who signed the Daily’s note are not.
I’ve reminded of this excellent soundbite from Nikole Hannah-Jones: “White journalists’ obsession with objectivity comes from being a white person in a white-dominated country in which all of the laws were in the favor of whiteness.”
These professional’s criticisms of the protestors — that they “should have stayed home” and maybe “wrote a letter” from their dorms — are such patronizing comments about what I know to be a patient and well-informed cross-section of Northwestern’s already exceedingly intellectual community of students. These patronizations are stocked in the same aisle as the “There’s nothing you can do about it” lollipops and the “I’m not a racist but” detergents.
They invalidate these protestors’ activism, they patronize these protestor’s criticisms of Jeff Session’s complicity in the racism, sexism, and encouragement of violence by the Trump administration, and they seek to wash these journalists of the guilt of the media’s historical and continued indifference when it comes to the plight and suffering of the peoples of color, the LGBTQ+ communities, the immigrants and newly-naturalized populations, the poor and the needy, and anybody else who does not look or live life like the senior editors in the offices of these professional newsrooms.
Cut it out, you all. I’m not having it.