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Journalism school dean's message to activists: 'We must allow journalists to do their jobs'

Posted November 17, 2019 9:38 p.m. EST

— The Daily Northwestern, the independent student newspaper at Northwestern University, recently wound up in the news for all the wrong reasons.

But some good could come out of the controversy.

This episode "underscores the need for us to embark on a campaign of media literacy," says Charles Whitaker, the dean of Northwestern's prestigious Medill School of Journalism.

He suggested that these efforts to teach the roles and responsibilities of a free press should probably start in elementary school, and should continue through college.

"Journalism has a really important role in our society," Whitaker said on this week's "Reliable Sources" podcast. "The public has to remember that we all have to understand that we are... writing this first draft of history. We are enabling the public to sort of see itself, to analyze what's happening in our life and times."

"And if we start to impinge on that, if we start to censor that," he added, we will have "an incomplete record of what's happening."

Whitaker's comments were prompted by the waves of outrage directed at the university's independently run publication.

The first wave came after The Daily Northwestern covered former US Attorney General Jeff Sessions' visit to campus — and the protests that ensued.

Some activists said the student newspaper harmed them by publishing photos of the protest and by using the school directory to contact protesters for interviews.

As the Daily Northwestern said in one of its own stories, "the incident laid bare the strained relationship between journalists and activists on campus, reflecting long-voiced concerns that reporters, in pursuit of the traditional sense of objectivity, fail to practice compassion and empathize with the circumstances of those they write about."

The student editors were overwhelmed by what Whitaker called "hate mail" after covering the protest. He said some of the messages were "threatening."

That's the context for what came next: The removal of some photos and a statement of apology from the newspaper.

While the statement may have appeased some of the students at Northwestern, it horrified professional journalists who learned about it via social media. There was a full-fledged Twitter uproar about the paper's decision to apologize for, in essence, committing basic acts of journalism.

Vanessa Gezari, national security editor for The Intercept, called the editorial "terrifying." She said actual journalists need to "advise these students on how to do their jobs."

And Washington Post investigative reporter Amy Brittain said the apology was mind-boggling, tweeting, "This is called reporting. Why are you apologizing for it?"

Some of the commenters criticized Medill's journalism school directly. Whitaker decided to step in by writing an open letter.

"Unlike our young charges at The Daily... I absolutely will not apologize for encouraging our students to take on the much-needed and very difficult task of reporting on our life and times at Northwestern and beyond," he wrote.

His aim, he said, was to "lower the temperature."

While the student editors made a "bad decision" by apologizing, he defended their right to make these kinds of mistakes, and also to respond directly to concerns on their campus.

He pointed out that college students have grown up learning about critical race theory, marginalized communities, and mental health issues, all of which factored in to the decision to say sorry.

A somewhat similar controversy unfolded at Harvard University earlier this semester, when The Harvard Crimson came under criticism for its coverage of a campus protest that called for the abolishing of US Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Student groups claimed that when the publication reached out to ICE for comment, they endangered undocumented students on campus.

The Crimson did not apologize — rather, it published a defense of its journalistic practices.

"We understand that some readers may disagree with The Crimson's policies. But our mission is facts, truth, narrative, and understanding," the student editors said. "In our view, consistent application of a commonly accepted set of journalistic standards is the best way to fairly report on the campus in a sensitive and thorough manner."

Speaking on the "Reliable Sources" podcast, Whitaker said the two controversies were "very related," and demonstrate "the need for a campaign of media literacy."

"I think the public is quite unaware of what journalism is, what our processes are," and "what it means to be balanced," he said.

"The public thinks of journalism as advocacy," he added. "And many of our students, when they start, think of journalism as advocacy as well, and we quickly try to disabuse them of that notion."

Merely quoting someone with a differing opinion, or asking for comment, doesn't mean "you are siding with them and you are against us," but that's how it is sometimes perceived, Whitaker said.

All of this illustrates the need for enhanced media literacy education, he said.

"We must allow journalists to do their jobs," Whitaker said. "We want them to do it well. We want them to do it accurately and fairly. We want to hold journalism to the highest standards, but we don't want to to rein it in, too, in such a way that we are no longer getting a complete picture of of what's happening in the world, in what's happening in our communities."

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