A News Tribune editorial this week expressed outrage over a government attempt in southwestern Wisconsin to limit access to public information and to dictate to the media what to report, under the threat of prosecution.
Along the same lines of “This isn’t how free press works,” as that editorial’s headline read, was more disturbing news on the news: On Sunday, the student newspaper at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., ran an apology editorial for publishing photos and for asking students for interviews following an on-campus visit from former Attorney General Jeff Sessions, which prompted protests.
Never mind that publishing photos and asking for interviews regarding newsworthy events and issues is exactly what newspapers and journalists do to help keep readers and the public informed. Essentially, the Daily Northwestern apologized “for doing their jobs,” as media watchdog Robert Feder of Chicago wrote in his blog. Feder very astutely referred to the apology as “bizarre” and “embarrassing.”
He was far from the only one baffled.
“Did any students quit the Daily in protest of this apology? If so, those are the students whose resumes I want to see,” St. Cloud, Minn., Times Engagement Editor Randy Krebs — who grew up in Duluth, the son of a News Tribune editor — wrote in sharing the story on his Facebook page.
Journalist John Aravosis tweeted that the editorial was a “betrayal of the tenets of journalism.”
The Washington Post’s Glenn Kessler asked in a tweet, “How is it possible that a newspaper at what is allegedly a top journalism school would apologize for the basics of reporting?”
“What are they teaching at (Northwestern)?” former St. Paul Pioneer Press reporter Jim Romanesko asked in a tweet.
The student journalists, in their editorial, said the newspaper’s photos from the protest were “retraumatizing” and “invasive.” The photos were taken down in response to student blowback about their coverage, .
Invasive? Consider Stephanie Zimmerman’s tweeted response to that: “Protesters protesting in a public place have zero expectation of privacy.”
Retraumatizing? Yes, the news can be. The world can be. Protecting ourselves from it — or being protected from it — can leave a false impression of reality, and this can prevent necessary efforts to right wrongs and make just the injustices. This gets at why newspapers and journalism exist: to report, so the public can know — the good and the bad. The public not only has a right to know, it has a responsibility so, well-informed, it can act accordingly and appropriately.
The student journalists also made the odd claim that their use of a publicly available telephone directory to contact students so they could be asked if they’d be willing to be interviewed was somehow an “invasion of privacy.” Not only is asking for an interview standard Journalism 101, it’s polite and cordial.
The basic practices of good journalism are needed now more than ever with so many media outlets struggling, and along with them our society’s need for truth and fairness. The ranks of responsible reporters are dwindling, and in the vacuum, propagandists, especially on social media, are jumping in, not to report and spread vital information, but to distort for too-oft unsavory and manipulative agendas. The divisive and damaging effects this is having on our society and this nation have been clear.
Responsible journalism needs to be taught — and not only at Northwestern. The media’s important role in our democracy never needs an apology.