When is a newspaper apology a really bad idea? Some college students may have learned the answer to that question the hard way.
A newspaper apology attracted a major backlash when it appeared students expressed remorse for actually committing acts of journalism.
The newspaper in question is at Northwestern University in Illinois. The apology centers on coverage of students protesting a visit by former U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions.
On Nov. 10, The Daily Northwestern, the student newspaper posted an editorial about its own coverage of Sessions’ Nov. 5 visit and a pair of protests.
Northwestern University is home to the Medill School of Journalism, a highly-regarded J-school. But the newspaper is staffed by journalism and non-journalism students alike.
Its editorial board apologized for “mistakes” it made in covering protests.
Were the mistakes really mistakes?
One of the errors the paper apparently believes it committed was in publishing photos of students taking part in the protest.
“Some protesters found photos posted to reporters’ Twitter accounts retraumatizing and invasive,” they wrote. They eventually took down the photos, they said.
They also apologized for using the student directory to reach out to students 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,” the board wrote.
The board also wrote that it knew it “hurt students that night, especially those who identify with marginalized groups.”
Journalists record what happens. That’s what they do. Those who take part in public protests shouldn’t expect privacy: they’re in public! A newspaper (or any other journalistic outlet) has the right to cover public protests.
A journalist shouldn’t apologize for doing so.
The student directory point likewise mystifies me.
If the paper had somehow hacked into school records to obtain phone numbers, that would be a problem. But using a directory available to all students to reach out to students? What else do you use a directory for? It actually sounds as if the paper reached out to students before the protest. Any student who didn’t wish to be interviewed could just say no. And I’m sure they did.
But to apologize for using the directory is absurd. It would have been one thing if reporters followed protesters home and then camped out like stalkers. Reaching out to anyone who’s listed just to ask if they’d be willing interview subjects didn’t invade privacy.
It shocks me that they think it would.
The flak came quickly.
Some commenters said they thought at first they were reading an article in the satire site The Onion.
One who identified as an alum asked what they’re teaching at the J-school claiming embarrassment by the newspaper apology. Others quickly pointed out the newspaper and the school are two separate entities. I’d like to think that’s a big part of the problem.
Another, who said he has been a working journalist for 44 years felt “appalled” by the editorial. That comment received a reply from a 45-year journalism vet:
“Joseph Medill, for whom this “journalism” school is named (and who was a staunch Republican who backed conservative causes, by the way), isn’t just turning in his grave. He’s likely trying to crawl out of it to forever remove his name from this “journalism” school.”
Chicago media correspondent Robert Feder said the newspaper had nothing to apologize for…except the apology.
And an opinion columnist and student may have said it best in a Washington Post editorial, which reads in part:
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.
No one said journalism is an easy job. No matter how you feel about the industry, it plays an important role in society.
I hope this editorial turns out to be a valuable lesson for those who want to practice journalism going forward. It can certainly stand as an example of what should not be done.