Margaret Sullivan: Student journalists erred; don't berate them for it

Journalists — the good ones, at least — are always walking the line between unsparing truth-telling and sensitivity to those affected by their work.

Students who run the Daily Northwestern stumbled this week as they walked that line.

The top editors of the student newspaper did something incomprehensible to many professional journalists.

They abjectly apologized, in writing, for doing some of the most basic jobs of journalism: Documenting a protest (in this case, an appearance by former attorney general Jeff Sessions on campus) and seeking comment by using a campus directory to contact students via text message.

And in making that apology — in a published statement — they used some language that played into the idea that today’s students are too sensitive to live in the real world. In the vernacular: “snowflakes.”

“Some protesters found photos posted to reporters’ Twitter accounts retraumatizing and invasive,” the statement said, explaining that they’d since been removed. And contacting students via text was an invasion of privacy.

But what the student journalists did is nothing to apologize for. They told what happened in photographs and words. They went the extra mile to reach people for comment.

After the apology and explanation published, professional journalists couldn’t believe what they were seeing, especially because Northwestern boasts a premier journalism school, Medill.

Many in the Twitterverse of verified users — rife with journalists — unloaded on the students.

“Namby-pamby is the phrase I’ve been looking for,” Alex Keefe, an editor at WBEZ in Chicago, wrote in a since-deleted tweet.

“As a @medillschool alum, a journalist, a journalism educator and a ... First Amendment advocate, this editorial stuns me,” tweeted David Boardman, dean of the Temple University media school and the former editor of the Seattle Times.

Others said they thought they were reading the Onion, a parody website.

What could possibly be wrong with taking and posting photographs and texting students to ask whether they were willing to be interviewed?

But then a more nuanced view took hold, especially among women and people of color who understood the issues differently.

Astead Herndon, national political reporter at the New York Times, provided some insight: This generation of journalists, he wrote, have an instinct “to care about historically marginalized communities and rethink power dynamics and it is playing out in a raw and uninformed way.”

In this case, those dynamics have to do with race, because many of the protesters (of the Sessions appearance and the coverage) were students of color.

So too is the Daily’s top editor, Troy Closson, who said in a Twitter thread that he had been struggling to meet conflicting demands — and, he admitted, he hadn’t done it perfectly.

“Being in this role and balancing our coverage and the role of this paper on campus with my racial identity — and knowing how our paper has historically failed students of color, and particularly black students, has been incredibly challenging to navigate,” he wrote.

Then he said that he appreciated the response he’d received (some of it pretty vicious) and that he had learned from it.

Under tremendous pressure and criticism, Closson exhibited a kind of grace and equanimity that (as a Medill alumna and a former student journalist myself) I found admirable.

Closson admitted that in hindsight, parts of the editors’ statement went too far.

And he reiterated that he and his colleagues fully understand the role of journalism: “We covered the protest to its full extent and stand by our reporting.”

The Daily’s reporting included accounts of Sessions harshly criticizing protesters:

“‘I’m just going to tell you, this is stupid,’ Sessions remarked as students pounded on the door to the auditorium and recited phrases like ... ‘You are a racist, you put kids in cages.’”

Notably, Closson referred to having “over-corrected” in parts of the editors’ statement.

Which — given that he and his colleagues are students — seems easily forgivable.

Then Closson did what good leaders do: He made it clear that the buck stopped with him.

“I hope in providing critiques and feedback of our statement, you can direct that toward me. The other staff members whose names are on it don’t have the final say. I do. I can live with the consequences of that, but they shouldn’t have to.”

The journalists at the Daily Northwestern seem interested in learning something from all of what happened, including their mistakes.

Which is, after all, what being a student is all about.

Margaret Sullivan is The Washington Post’s media columnist. Previously, she was the New York Times public editor, and the chief editor of the Buffalo News, her hometown paper.

Funerals for Thursday, December 5, 3019

Bays, Bertha - 1 p.m., Montgomery Memorial Park, London.

Brammer, Larry - 1 p.m., Greene-Robertson Funeral Home, Sutton.

Crouch, Patty - 1 p.m., The First Freewill Baptist Church of Chesapeake.

Ferguson, Alice - 6 p.m., First Baptist Church of Kenova.

Harris, Curtis - 11 a.m., St. Matthew Catholic Church, Ravenswood.

Holcomb, Robert - 2 p.m., Mt. Gilead Cemetery, Pool.

Jarrell, Alma - 1 p.m., Keller Funeral Home, Dunbar.

Lanham, Edward - 6 p.m., American Legion, St. Albans.

O'Dell, Shelvia - 11 a.m., John H. Taylor Funeral Home, Spencer.

Russell, Edra - 1 p.m., Gatens-Harding Funeral Home, Poca.

Stewart II, Randall - 1 p.m., White Funeral Home, Summersville.