The truth hurts.
And if that’s not a lesson taught in journalism school, it should be. Events involving Northwestern University’s student newspaper the past few days make that clear.
It’s a weird story. Former U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions spoke at Northwestern on Nov. 5. Students protested, twice. The Daily Northwestern covered the appearance and the protests, as you would expect the student paper at one of the best journalism schools in the country to do. (Like many student newspapers, The Daily operates independently of both the university and the Medill School of Journalism.)
On Sunday, the paper apologized.
For what, exactly?
An editorial laid it all out, saying the paper had made “mistakes” in its coverage. Typically that would mean a clarification or correction.
This was not that.
Journalistic methods were sound
“Some protesters found photos posted to reporters’ Twitter accounts retraumatizing and invasive,” the editorial says. “Those photos have since been taken down.”
Some students were worried the university would use the photos to identify and punish student protesters. (Indeed, the university’s president had warned of possible disciplinary action.)
The paper also apologized for using a Northwestern directory “to obtain phone numbers for students beforehand and texted them to ask if they’d be willing to be interviewed. We recognize being contacted like this is an invasion of privacy, and we’ve spoken with those reporters — along with our entire staff — about the correct way to reach out to students for stories.”
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Um, that is the correct way. The names were in a university directory. In other words, not private. Remember phone books? They were a gold mine for sources for stories. Be polite, certainly. Be respectful. Be fair.
And do your job.
The apology sparked fierce criticism on social media, with many professional journalists coming down hard on the paper’s staff. Others defended the paper, and Troy Closson, the editor-in-chief for The Daily, who on Tuesday tweeted a thread explaining the challenge of students reporting on students.
It can be tricky, yes. And uncomfortable. Sometimes unpleasant.
And that will never change, certainly not when you get a job at a professional publication and report on the community in which you live.
Nor should it change. Taking pictures of a public event is simply the job of a news photographer. Certainly an independent publication isn’t in the business of helping the university out protesters in order to punish them.
Nor is it in the business of protecting those protesters. It’s in the business of capturing the story as completely and fairly as possible.
Like, for instance, taking and publishing photos.
Traumatic. Invasive. Essential.
And if some people find them “retraumatizing and invasive?” That’s unfortunate, but it’s no reason not to publish them. Sometimes, in fact, that’s the point. If publications had adhered to that standard, the world never would have seen the photo of Mary Ann Vecchio kneeling over Jeffrey Miller, fatally wounded by National Guard troops on the campus of Kent State University on May 4, 1970.
Traumatic? Yes. Invasive? Certainly. And it told everyone who saw it, in one searing image, what had happened that day.
It was essential.
Telling the truth has consequences. Closson’s right — he and his staff have to go to class with the people they report on. But report on them they must.
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The idea of the hard-bitten, bourbon-swilling reporter who sets out to make enemies of everyone he or she writes about is overblown. No one sets out to make anyone angry (or at least they shouldn’t). But a good journalist sets out to chronicle a story truthfully; making people mad is a sometimes unavoidable byproduct of seeking the truth. It is not just a job, but a duty.
The media are already under constant attack. They probably always will be.
So what? The idea here is to report without fear or favor. Both parts of that equation are important. Sometimes both parts are going to make people mad, and make the people who do the reporting uncomfortable.
That’s a tough lesson to learn. It’s also an essential one.
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This article originally appeared on Arizona Republic: Northwestern University student paper apologizes for protest coverage