Overview of the Events
On Nov. 5 former Attorney General Jeff Sessions spoke at Northwestern University, and students staged a protest. The Daily Northwestern sent a photographer and two reporters: one to cover the protest and one to cover the talk itself. The newspaper obtained some protestors’ phone numbers from the student directory and requested interviews through text. They also ran pictures of student protestors.
Following an outcry from the student body, the Daily issued an apology for the way they covered this event and their role in contributing to “the harm students experienced.” This apology in turn was criticized by some members of professional publications on the count that it apologized for good journalistic practices.
The two sides of integrity
Sam Churchill ’20
According to journalism ethics and the law, media outlets — student newspapers included — have the right to take and print photos of any person in a public space. Consent is not required for a photo’s publication. Therefore, it is unreasonable for students at Northwestern University to demand that their school’s media extend them a unique order of privacy when protests by their very nature are public events. Although publishing these photos was technically legal and students should not feel entitled to privacy in the public sphere, I do not agree with the Daily Northwestern’s decision to run the photos. While the primary goal of student reporting should be a fair and accurate representation of the facts, it is the responsibility of each editorial board to carefully weigh this duty against the potential harm their coverage can cause.
In this case, I do not believe that photos of the protesters would have enhanced readers’ understanding of the events beyond the coverage the article provided. In order to do their part in creating a safe environment for the expression of dissenting opinions, the Daily could have instead chosen to ask protestors for their consent to publish the photographs. In either case, this is a decision that should have been carefully considered before publication. It should not take public outcry for journalists to consider their editorial responsibilities.
However, I am disappointed in the Daily Northwestern for their unnecessary public apology for contacting protestors. Members of the publication used the student directory to obtain phone numbers and request interviews. Applying the same principle of aiming to balance robust journalism with potentially harmful effects, the substantive value of gaining insight through interviews outweighs the discomfort some students felt as a result of contact. It is a journalist’s job to put together the most complete picture possible, particularly in relation to events of gravity, like Northwestern’s protests. Though mentioning the event may have caused distress to some, students who did not wish to discuss the protest had the option to decline the interview request. The threshold for potential harm outweighing journalistic responsibility is certainly somewhere between not requesting interviews at all and harassing someone for contact; again, how hard a journalist should push is a highly subjective benchmark that should be adjusted based on circumstance. In this case, I believe the cutoff lies well north of simply contacting a source. If students are uncomfortable with fellow students having access to their phone numbers, that is an issue that should be taken up with the administration; it is unreasonable to ask the paper not to use a resource that is readily available to all students in order to make a one-off request for information pertaining to a salient campus issue.
Ethical standards for student journalists should be inherently different from those of the professional media. However, I do believe that editorial responsibility in both instances expands beyond the minimum standards the law requires. Balancing robust journalism with the potential harm reporting can cause is an extremely complex task. In evaluating this balance, journalists must critically consider the power differentials and injustices often wrapped up in the stories we report. There is no one correct answer for everyone, and even if there were, no publication could strike that balance perfectly every time. Student journalists should aspire to reach that balance, regardless of its likelihood. When journalists inevitably fall short, we should be criticized for it. And when we are criticized, we will work to become better.
Precedent is not always the answer
Deeksha Udupa ’22
Young journalists are often forced to choose between opportunities and ethics, and I believe that with the coverage of this protest, the Daily Northwestern gave preference to the former. Rather than asking student protesters if they would be comfortable with permanently uploading the photographs online, the Daily acted out of self-interest; these student journalists were aware of the virality of both Sessions’ visit and the consequent protest and, in my opinion, hoped to take advantage of both to propel their own careers.
It is true that, according to journalism ethics and law, student newspapers do have the right to take and print photos of anyone in a public space. I don’t believe that this can be implemented as a “blanket rule” because it ignores situational context. According to a current Northwestern student, Northwestern University has previously punished protesters and has identified them through published photographs. Furthermore, a similar incident occurred after students protested an event by a public relations official of the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Northwestern has a pattern of penalizing dissenters and using published photographs as evidence.
The journalists at the Daily should have been more mindful not only of their actions, but also of their subsequent effects. The publishing of these photographs disproportionately affected first-generation students, low-income students and students of color, specifically women of color, because most activists at Northwestern identify with these groups, according to a current Northwestern student who spoke to The Wellesley News. Students who identify with these groups already deal with the difficulties of navigating college and predominantly white spaces, and shouldn’t also have to worry about facing punishment at the hands of the administration for exercising their freedom of speech.
The question is not if they had the right to publish these photos — rather, it is whether they should have done so. I am not denying that these journalists did follow precedent. However, I believe that journalists must not always turn to precedent so quickly because what worked in the past is not always the best option for the present. We live in a society where the voices of dissent are not just dismissed, but also endangered. Student journalists should not take part in the system of muting these voices. The Daily Northwestern is not just read by students, but also administrative officials, and its journalists need to be aware of their full readership. If a sensitive topic is to be covered, it should be done so ethically, so that those who are already in the minority are not further marginalized.