Northwestern journalism dean: Editors were 'beat into submission' by student activists

The dean of the Northwestern University School of Journalism had some harsh words for student activists who forced their student newspaper to apologize for how it covered a protest.

He said that the student newspaper acted “in no way beyond the bounds of fair, responsible journalism.”

The dean of the School of Journalism at Northwestern University had some harsh words for the student activists responsible for “bullying and badgering” their student newspaper into issuing an apology for reporting on protests of an appearance by former Attorney General Jeff Sessions.

Dean for the Northwestern Medill School of Journalism, Media, and Integrated Marketing Communications Charles Whitaker defended The Daily Northwestern in a Tuesday statement, saying that the paper’s staff went “in no way beyond the bounds of fair, responsible journalism.”

The Daily came under fire after its coverage of protests of a lecture, given by Sessions, hosted by the Northwestern College Republicans on Nov. 5. The paper’s photo editor Collin Boyle took now-deleted photos of students that protesters described as “retraumatizing and intrusive,” as previously covered by Campus Reform.

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Caving to protesters’ demands, editors from The Daily ultimately apologized for their coverage of the event, stating that as a campus newspaper, “we must operate differently than a professional publication in these circumstances.”

In Whitaker’s statement, the dean defended the student newspaper, saying that he was “deeply troubled” by the amount of bullying that The Daily staffers had endured for the “‘sin’ of doing journalism.”

The dean asserted that it is “naÏve” and “wrong-headed” for student activists to declare that staffers at The Daily had violated personal space of protesters at the event by reporting on the event, noting that the protest was in public.

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“Our young reporters did not root through trash cans, trespass on private property or purloin personal documents,” Whitaker said. “What they tried to do was ask questions and take pictures that they hoped would offer the most accurate account of this wrenching event—one in which the images captured by The Daily’s photographers may provide the only evidence of what actually transpired in the interaction between students and campus police.”

He went on to say that while The Daily issued “a heartfelt, though not well-considered editorial,” he would “absolutely” not apologize for encouraging students to report on the news.

Whitaker noted that he understood why editors from The Daily “felt the need to issue their mea culpa,” adding that they were “beat into submission by the vitriol and relentless public shaming they have been subjected to since the Sessions stories appeared.”

“I think it is a testament to their sensitivity and sense of community responsibility that they convinced themselves that an apology would effect a measure of community healing,” he said.

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However, Whitaker criticized the student newspaper’s apology, saying that the “well-intentioned gesture sends a chilling message about journalism and its role in society,” and suggests journalists are “prone to bowing to the loudest and most influential voices in our orbit.”

Northwestern journalism student Dylan Gresik told Campus Reform that he agreed with Whitaker’s statement.

“I think that he had a very measured response to the journalism that this school teaches,” Gresik said. “[Whitaker] rightly places some of the blame on the protestors.”

Gresik said that he agrees that the letter from The Daily editors should be a learning moment, but is concerned about the precedent it sets.

“The editorial also reveals the troubling trend of blurring the line between activism and journalism,”  Gresik said. “It’s a sad reflection on what we’re taught, on essentially apologizing for journalism.”

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