Understanding The Northwestern Student Paper Apology And The Ensuing Backlash

Over the weekend, Northwestern University’s student newspaper, The Daily Northwestern, issued an editorial apologizing for “mistakes” they had made while covering a student protest of former attorney general Jeff Sessions’ visit to the campus last week. The offending act consisted of photographing students involved in the protest and then attempting to reach out to the students to participate in interviews via the student directory, known to many as, you know, reporting.

Now the daily student paper is dealing with another “controversy,” this time involving the apology itself which many professional journalists view as alarming and antithetical to the very act of journalism. However, the situation is a whole lot more complicated than headlines and quick judgments give it credit for, so let’s break it down and understand each part of The Daily Northwestern’s apology and its ensuing backlash.

The Protest

The Daily Northwestern dispatched two reporters to cover former Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ speech at the College Republicans event on Northwestern’s campus on November 5th, one to cover the speech itself, and another along with a photographer to cover a nearby gathering of students protesting his invitation. The paper’s Twitter account posted photos of the protest and received complaints from some of the students pictured, who felt the photos were retraumatizing of the experience and invasive.

According to The Daily Northwestern, some of the staff members covering the story also used the university’s student directory to obtain phone numbers of fellow students and texted them requesting interviews, a move many students felt was an invasion of their privacy.

The Apology

It’s easy to look at the events surrounding the protest and criticize the response of Northwestern’s student body — a protest by nature is public, the idea of students desiring privacy while they publicly display their opposition to something is laughable, an example of how real-world discourse and the type found on the internet differ.

However, according to The Daily Northwestern, while some universities grant amnesty to student protesters, Northwestern University does not, meaning anything the paper reports can be used to take action against the students by the university — creating the potential for repercussions that the paper did not want to play a role in.

So the paper removed the photos of the protest, omitted the name of a protestor they spoke to and issued an apology that began “Last week, The Daily was not the paper that Northwestern students deserve,” and spoke of photos that were “retraumatizing and invasive” to which grown adult professional journalists who are not at all involved in Northwestern University aired their displeasure on Twitter.

The Backlash

Professional journalists and people who like to talk about “the death of journalism” absolutely flipped out about The Daily Northwestern‘s apology, which critics saw as excessive, pandering to the idea of “safe spaces,” and journalistically irresponsible. Northwestern University is home to the prestigious Medill School of Journalism, so many critics of the apology felt that this was setting a dangerous precedent for the future of journalism.

This put The Daily Northwestern back on the defensive, only this time they weren’t dealing with complaints from their fellow students, they were dealing with angry journalism Twitter. Speaking to the Washington Post about the backlash, Daily Northwestern editor in chief Troy Closson discussed what his team were learning as events continued to unfold,

“Something we thought about a lot this week is how challenging it is to be student journalists who are reporting about other students… we’re thinking about what our role looks like specifically as student journalists who have to cover this, but at the same time we have to go to class with those students tomorrow.”

Closson also posted an extensive thread on his Twitter account further explaining the reasoning behind the decisions made, announcing that the paper stands by its reporting, and stressed that all future feedback over the statement should be addressed to him and not his staff.

As Closson and others have alluded to, the journalists and Twitter commentators seem to be forgetting that this is the Daily Northwestern we’re talking about, not the New York Times. In a perfect world, this is absolutely the venue for the staff of a paper to go through growing pains and navigate what it means to be a reporter. After all, school is meant to be a place of discovery.

As the entire situation evolves, people are realizing that it doesn’t matter whether you think the paper overcorrected themselves or straight up went too far, all that matters is what Troy Closson and his staff writers at The Daily Northwestern take away from this situation. They are, after all, the journalism students in this story. They’re the ones running a paper that has to adapt to the environment it’s published in, understand the shifting needs of its audience, and protect the identities of their sources in a way they see fit.