Northwestern University

Northwestern Student Newspaper's Editorial Stirs Up Controversy

Northwestern University's student newspaper published an editorial on Sunday that has since drawn widespread condemnation over the paper's apology for its coverage of a campus visit from former U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions.

Eight members of the editorial board of The Daily Northwestern began the piece by writing that in covering Sessions' event and the ensuing protests on Nov. 5, it was "not the paper that Northwestern students deserve."

Specifically, the board apologized for reporters tweeting photos of protesters, using the school's directory to contact students and for initially naming a protester quoted in an article.

The board began by saying that the newspaper sent a reporter to cover Sessions' speech at the Evanston school's College Republicans event, and another with a photographer to cover the students protesting his visit.

"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 reads.

The board wrote that its photo coverage "harmed many students" who found the pictures posted on Twitter to be "retraumatizing and invasive." The reporters have since taken those photos down, the paper said, in an effort to "prioritize the trust and safety of students who were photographed."

"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. We failed to do that last week, and we could not be more sorry," the board wrote.

The board wrote that some students "voiced concern" that staff members covering the event found students' phone numbers using Northwestern's directory and texted them to ask if they'd be willing to be interviewed. The board called that "an invasion of privacy" and said the entire staff had received instruction on the "correct way to reach out."

In apologizing for naming a protester quoted in an article, the editorial noted that while some universities give amnesty to student protesters, Northwestern does not - adding that the paper did not want to "play a role in any disciplinary action" the school could take.

"As a campus newspaper covering a student body that can be very easily and directly hurt by the University, we must operate differently than a professional publication in these circumstances," the piece said.

The board said that students, particularly those who "identify with marginalized groups," were hurt by the paper's coverage, adding that they were working on guidelines for outreach, social media and more. The paper's staff members met Sunday, according to the editorial, in order to discuss where their "reporting and empathy fell short."

"As students at Northwestern, we are also grappling with the impact of Tuesday’s events, and as a student organization, we are figuring out how we can support each other and our communities through distressing experiences that arise on campus. We will also work to balance the need for information and the potential harm our news coverage may cause," the editorial reads. "We hope we can rebuild trust that we weakened or lost last week."

The editorial garnered hundreds of comments on the paper's website, many from professional journalists and Medill School alumni, largely condemning the board's position. Some called the editorial "embarrassing," others noting that they initially believed the letter to be satirical in nature.

"Contacting people through a directory and using photos from a public event are basics of journalism," wrote one commenter. Another added that the letter was "an insult to true journalism," joining several people in writing that the editors who signed it should not work in the industry.

The Daily's editor-in-chief Troy Closson expounded on the editorial on Twitter, in an attempt to address concerns circulating online and to offer more nuance to the apology.

"There’s a lot that I could talk about, but first want to say that we covered the protest to its full extent and stand by our reporting. Our statement addressed some legitimate areas of growth we noticed in our reporting, but also over-corrected in others," Closson wrote.

He noted that he was just the third black editor of The Daily in its 135 years of publication - a role that he said brought even more pressure than he realized it would, particularly in balancing the paper's role on campus with his own racial identity.

Closson said the paper's statement fell short as a result of "how challenging it can be for marginalized students to navigate situations like those this past week while balancing our identities, roles as student journalists and positions as students."

He said he appreciated the concerns raised and understood how it could prompt worry about the staff's values.

"We aren't unclear about our rights as a newspaper to cover student protest, but also understand the need to do so with empathy," Closson wrote. "Know that our staff is doing the best we can to do our jobs as student journalists while working through gaps in knowledge about what student journalism consists of — and showing that we at least hear the real concerns from students."

Closson noted that he valued feedback received and asked that any further critiques be directed at him rather than other staff members, because he had the final say and "can live with the consequences of that."

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