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Editorial: The Daily's coverage of Jeff Sessions: A teaching moment for Northwestern

The Editorial Board, Chicago Tribune on

Published in Op Eds

When former Attorney General Jeff Sessions agreed to speak at Northwestern University, editors at the student-run Daily Northwestern newspaper recognized it as a big story. Sessions, invited by College Republicans, was unwelcome by many on the liberal-leaning campus, so the Daily assigned one reporter to cover Sessions' talk and another to cover students protesting his appearance, plus a photographer.

So far so good, journalistically: Nice hustle, staff smartly deployed in the service of readers. As anticipated, Sessions' Nov. 5 appearance turned confrontational and the Daily got the story, all of it: Sessions explaining the policies of President Donald Trump, student protesters pounding on the doors trying to disrupt him, university police roughing up some of those protesters who got inside, Sessions criticizing the protesters for their "stupidity."

Maybe this incident isn't as significant as NU's antiwar strike of 1970 when a student barricade blocked Sheridan Road, but who knows? The work of journalists is to chronicle events in real time -- to write the first draft of history, as we news folks like to say. The reporters and editors of The Daily Northwestern did their job.

And then, in the aftermath, Daily editors had second thoughts about their coverage decisions, second thoughts about their responsibilities to readers, second thoughts about the role of a campus newspaper at a politically charged moment in America. Instead of taking justifiable pride in their reporting, the editors -- shockingly -- apologized.

In a signed statement published Sunday, Editor in Chief Troy Closson and other staffers repudiated their own work, saying photos of the demonstrators posted to social media were "invasive." They also expressed regret that reporters had used Northwestern's directory to obtain phone numbers for students and then texted those students to ask if they'd be willing to be interviewed. The Daily editors abrogated their responsibility, unpublishing photos and pledging to rebuild trust they perceived was broken -- when in fact they'd had their priorities and journalistic practices exactly right.

The tone of the apology provides context for the Daily's puzzling capitulation. The editors mistakenly decided in hindsight that Sessions' appearance as a Trumpian Republican wasn't news in the customary sense, it was a traumatizing event that required extreme sensitivity. "We feel that covering traumatic events requires a different response than many other stories," the editors wrote. "While our goal is to document history and spread information, nothing is more important than ensuring that our fellow students feel safe -- and in situations like this, that they are benefiting from our coverage rather than being actively harmed by it."

To be frank, that's not journalism. That's the language of campus coddling. It's prevalent at too many colleges, where professors provide "trigger warnings" before addressing tough topics and administrators avoid having divisive -- read: conservative -- speakers on campus.

We're disappointed in Northwestern President Morton Schapiro, who said he supported Sessions' appearance but then lamented that Sessions wasn't "the right speaker" for Northwestern. Too polarizing for Schapiro's taste? That should be the university's goal: to expose students to different opinions, even ones they may find disagreeable, and encourage those students to listen, to question and to respond (civilly).

In contrast, we've admired the University of Chicago's commitment to free expression as voiced forcefully and repeatedly by President Robert Zimmer: to embrace the marketplace of ideas, including potentially offensive ones, so students can learn to think for themselves.

 

When even NU's president wishes the Sessions event hadn't happened, the Daily's editors would have felt awfully lonely sticking to journalistic principles. Closson, as the third African American editor in Daily history, explained on Twitter that he thought he had a responsibility to gain readership from students of color who had felt alienated from the newspaper. That's an appropriate goal, but here's what news organizations owe their audiences: thorough, fair-minded coverage via energetic and creative reporting -- not pandering to public sentiment. Readers (students included) who are pampered and protected remain uninformed.

In the aftermath to the aftermath, we want to support the Daily's editors, not castigate them. They are students who, by definition, learn by doing -- and sometimes failing. Closson acknowledges that the Daily's statement was an overcorrection. He's owning this episode.

Hey, we err too. The Tribune publishes corrections and clarifications almost every day. We learn from our mistakes then move on. Do the same, Daily editors: Examine your work and make sure it's in the service of your entire readership, because all those people count on you to report the facts accurately and impartially.

Let this be a teaching moment, then, for the Daily, for President Schapiro and for Northwestern's Medill School of Journalism, whose professors we know have the chops to teach the craft. Among its tenets: Journalism isn't about popularity. Sometimes there's no better way to make enemies than telling the truth to the people.

(c)2019 Chicago Tribune

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