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Lessons from The Daily Northwestern’s apology for doing good journalism

College journalists are under pressure because campus groups don’t necessarily appreciate the basic practices and standards of what is newsworthy.

The Daily Northwestern has apologized for its coverage of a campus visit by former Attorney General Jeff Sessions, saying it should not have posted photos of protesters or texted students to request interviews.
The Daily Northwestern has apologized for its coverage of a campus visit by former Attorney General Jeff Sessions, saying it should not have posted photos of protesters or texted students to request interviews.
Sun-Times file photo

American journalism is under fire from the right.

We have a president who has convinced a third of the nation that the media regularly reports “fake news.” This, of course, would be any news the president does not like.

Journalism is under fire from above, from corporate owners who would prefer that reporters make no waves.

And so you find the entire staff of Deadspin, the online sports website, quitting this month because the new owners sent down a memo ordering them to “stick to sports.” As if sports journalism ends at the edge of a playing field and should not include coverage of domestic violence by ballplayers, the NBA’s kowtowing to China and professional athletes stiffing White House invitations.

American journalism is under fire from the left, as well, most obviously among the young and “woke.”

They would suppress full and honest reporting out of an overabundance of concern for hurt feelings, an unwillingness to accept that free speech cuts both ways and a refusal to accept how real journalism must work.

On Sunday, the editors of The Daily Northwestern, the student newspaper at Northwestern University, caved to that pressure, apologizing in an editorial for the sin of doing journalism. The editorial was not well thought out. We can only hope the young editors, well intended but still learning their craft, will someday figure that out.

The editorial apologized to the readers of The Daily for “mistakes” the paper made when covering a visit on campus, at the invitation of the College Republicans, by former Attorney General Jeff Sessions. The visit drew big protests.

“One area of our reporting that harmed many students was our photo coverage of the events,” the editorial states. “Some protesters found photos posted to reporters’ Twitter accounts retraumatizing and invasive. Those photos have since been taken down.”

Let’s consider that. The Daily is apologizing for posting photographs of protesters at a public demonstration. In what world is that “invasive?”

The real concern, for anybody who cares about the state of our free society, should be quite the opposite. The real concern should be the frequent efforts by government to keep journalists and protesters far apart to tamp down voices of dissent.

When a NATO summit was held in Chicago in 2012, news organizations pushed hard for the rights of protest groups to be close to the action, not relegated to some distant parking lot.

“Some students,” The Daily editorial continues, “also voiced concern about the methods that Daily staffers used to reach out to them. Some of our staff members who were covering the event used Northwestern’s 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.”

We recognize no such thing.

Requesting an interview, via text or any other polite means, is not an “invasion of privacy.” Not even in the world of campus safe spaces. It’s a request for an interview, to which anybody can say no.

The Daily is in a tough spot. We appreciate that. As Dan Balz of the Washington Post tweeted, college journalists are under pressure today because campus groups don’t necessarily understand or appreciate the basic practices and standards of good journalism.

The Harvard Crimson is under fire for the perceived offense of calling for a comment from ICE — U.S. Immigration and Customs and Enforcement — when reporting on immigration issues. On Sunday, Harvard’s student government, the Undergraduate Council, voted to support an activist group calling for a boycott of The Crimson.

Sorry, kids. We’re not big fans of ICE, either, but good reporters hear out all sides.

As it happens, we know and respect the editor in chief of The Daily Northwestern, Troy Closson. He was an intern at the Sun-Times this past summer and did a stellar job. He’s got a career in this business, if he wants it.

There’s an undertone to the editorial in The Daily, revealed most pointedly in the phrase “marginalized groups,” that suggests the student editors are, in reality, trying to address other issues of campus journalism, such as a perceived racial bias. If so, that’s the editorial they should have written.

But that’s the thing about good journalism, whether it’s produced at Deadspin, The Harvard Crimson, The Daily Northwestern or the Chicago Sun-Times.

You will never win a popularity contest.

Send letters to letters@suntimes.com.