The student-led editorial staff of The Daily Northwestern in Illinois apologized Sunday for an article published about student protesters at Jeff Sessions’ presentation at their school a week prior. From my journalistic perspective, the lengthy apology is absolutely ludicrous — our first responsibility is to seek truth and report it, according to the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ), and that is exactly what these students did. However, these journalists received backlash for their reporting and felt the need to apologize for their actions.
The Daily Northwestern sent two reporters and a photographer to cover the events taking place, all in a public forum. The reporters interviewed participants and photographed events unfolding as the evening went on to post on social media and in the upcoming publication.
From what I can gather, after the article was published and pictures were posted on media accounts, the protesting students who were interviewed and pictured suddenly did not want to be seen or tied to the protests. The protesting students told the reporters they framed the students in a harmful way, claiming there would be consequences for the student protesters if the photos and interview attributions were not removed. However, the student reporters were simply doing their journalistic duties: seeking truth and reporting it.
The Daily Northwestern’s apology hits on another rule in the SPJ Code of Ethics: minimizing harm. The editor-in-chief and his staff released their editorial apology letter in order to maintain the trust students felt toward The Daily Northwestern, but at the cost of decreasing their integrity as journalists. I understand empathy for exploiting students in publications, but as a journalist, there is a time for facts and a time for emotions. Realizing we are to report and be objective is important when it comes to covering material that sometimes hits close to home. The Chicago Tribune said of the situation, “Here’s what news organizations owe their audiences: thorough, fair-minded coverage via energetic and creative reporting — not pandering to public sentiment.”
And journalists shouldn’t pander, ever. The people have a right to know what is happening, why it happened, who is involved, etc. The people should not try to force journalists and publications to compromise the pursuit of truth. When we accuse journalists of being dishonest or unethical when their job is being done correctly, we give into “fake news” and the culture of disregarding the news as false or bogus. In reality, journalism is how people in power are kept in check and how the world is informed in real time about breaking news. When the world decides to suddenly fight one of the few remaining powers against corrupt leaders and powers, where do we turn?
At the end of the day, this honestly scares me when it comes to the future landscape of news media and journalists. As narrators and chroniclers of history, journalists must inform future generations of the truth about events and hold all people accountable for actions taken when exercising their rights. Finding the balance between empathy and honesty is easier said than done, but an editorial apologizing for doing exactly what was supposed to be done is completely bogus and pushes a narrative of dishonesty on us and media.