Protesting students interrupted a speech by former U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions on Nov. 5 at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill.

That a conservative speaker linked to the Trump administration was greeted by grievance on a college campus was no surprise, given the tribal rifts in American politics.

The real twist occurred afterward, when editors of the student newspaper, the Daily Northwestern, issued apologies for engaging in the standard journalistic practices of disseminating photos of the event and attempting to contact the protesters for interviews.

Newspaper staff members then endured a blazing meteor storm on social media from incensed professional journalists. And a backlash to the backlash followed, as defenders rallied around the beleaguered student reporters.

This is playing out at a time when American journalists are facing declining print readership, continuing job cuts, and a U.S. president who denigrates their work as fake and antagonistic.

And now, some veteran journalists are saying “the young people in the profession appear to be letting them down,” said Barbara Allen, an expert in student media at the Poynter Institute, a nonprofit journalism education and training center in St. Petersburg, Fla.

It all combines to make reporters feel that “the future of journalism is in trouble,” she added.

‘We contributed to the harm’

The Northwestern apology was written by the eight-member editorial board that runs the paper, an independent entity not funded by the university or overseen by its faculty.

According to the board’s statement, the paper was wrong to tweet out pictures its photographer took of the protesters, and use a student directory to text and call the demonstrators for interviews.

The statement continued: “We contributed to the harm students experienced, and ... apologize for and address the mistakes we made.” Some protesters found the tweeted photos “traumatizing and invasive,” it said. Further, the act of looking up phone numbers to contact the protesters was “an invasion of privacy.”

Asked to comment, Daily Northwestern editor-in-chief Troy Closson declined to be interviewed for this article, saying he needed to “focus on taking care of myself.”

‘A travesty’

After the apology, it was open season on the Evanston kids.

“Apologizing for the sin of committing journalism,” wrote New York Times commentator Bari Weiss. “This is chilling and a sign of more to come.”

Washington Post columnist Glenn Kessler called it "a travesty and an embarrassment.”

The student editors’ reaction was a “reflection of our polarized society,” said Hadar Harris, executive director of the Student Press Law Center, a Washington nonprofit that defends the First Amendment rights of high school and college journalists. “Student journalists mistakenly feel pulled by all political sides.”

Those young reporters forgot that their job was not to appease interest groups and campus peers, but simply to report, said Gene Foreman, retired deputy editor of The Inquirer and author of The Ethical Journalist: Making Responsible Decisions in the Pursuit of News.

The protesters, who chose to be at Sessions’ speech, were in a public place and fair game for the college photographer’s lens, he added.

Further, it wasn’t an invasion of privacy to contact protesters, Foreman said: If a person doesn’t want to talk to a reporter, “say, ‘No comment.’”

‘A culture of censorship’

When they apologized, the Northwestern journalists demonstrated an all-too-common characteristic of student reporting, Harris said. “A culture of censorship and self-censorship is seeping into student journalism. Journalists are second-guessing how to do a story for readers who are not understanding the fundamental role of journalists.”

At the heart of this shift in standards, Harris said, is the Hazelwood decision of 1988, in which the U.S. Supreme Court decided that student journalists could be subject to censorship by school administrators for “any legitimate pedagogical concern.”

Harris said the ruling has allowed school officials to limit or cut stories that reflect poorly on the school, such as articles about teacher misconduct or financial mismanagement.

Hazelwood has led to student journalists being trained for 30 years under a limiting standard that leads to self-censorship of the type demonstrated at Northwestern, Harris said.

Student journalists are also subject to the real-time critiques of peers with whom they sit in class, Harris and others said, and that can be daunting.

All this can lead to flaps such as the event last month involving the Crimson, the Harvard University newspaper, in which student reporters were excoriated by campus activists merely for calling U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) for comment on a story about an “Abolish ICE” protest at the school.

“Students may not have the training on how to cover those stories, and how to take into account the critiques from other students,” Harris concluded.

‘Subject to criticism from all directions’

The Northwestern editorial board statement sparked “lots of conversation” among staffers at the Temple News, said the paper’s editor-in-chief, Kelly Brennan.

“I don’t agree with the editors’ decisions” to retract the photos of protesters and apologize for phoning people, said Brennan, 21, a senior and journalism major from Reading.

She said that Temple reporters have never been censored by the school administration and have not backed away from reporting a story.

But, Brennan added, she feels “passionately about not condemning these journalists.”

Bayliss Wagner, 20, a of Vienna, Va., is a web editor of The Phoenix, a student publication at Swarthmore College.
Olivia Smith
Bayliss Wagner, 20, a of Vienna, Va., is a web editor of The Phoenix, a student publication at Swarthmore College.

Student journalists are “subject to criticism from all directions,” which can be “psychologically stressful,” according to Bayliss Wagner, 20, a Swarthmore College junior from Vienna, Va., and a web editor of the Phoenix, a school weekly, who was a summer intern at The Inquirer.

Charles Whitaker, dean of the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern, said in a statement that the actions of the editors were “naive, not to mention wrong-headed.”

But, he added protectively, “waging war” on the students, who are facing a “brutal onslaught of ... hostility ... is beyond the pale....

“Don’t make judgments about them ... until you’ve walked in their shoes.”