January 24, 2020

Society needs to pay more attention to the freedom of the press

When I first read The New York Times’ coverage of The Daily Northwestern’s apology to its readers, I thought it was satire. On Nov. 10, Northwestern University’s student-run newspaper published the apology, “Addressing the Daily’s coverage Sessions protests” after taking photos of students protesting former U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ speech. 

Though I find the Daily’s apology to be absolutely ridiculous, I don’t agree with the thousands of professional journalists and non-journalists alike publicly chastising the Daily’s decision to publish an apology. 

First, let me get a few things out of the way. It’s perfectly legal for journalists — or anyone — to take photos of people in public spaces like where Sessions’ speech took place. It’s also not a violation of privacy to get someone’s number from a public directory. The Daily apologized for texting the students beforehand to ask for interviews. 

The Daily’s apology racked up over 500 comments from readers. Commenters wrote, “This is not journalism you’re practicing, it is a travesty” and “This is profoundly embarrassing.” 

Though many of the negative commenters are not wrong, The Daily kind of had a point. 

College journalists cannot be compared to professional journalists. We strive to produce the best product we can, but the point of student-run newspapers is for students to learn. The Daily was wrong to apologize for doing basic newsgathering. However, it’s important to point out that their whole staff is comprised of students. Too often college journalists are expected to act professionally before first learning the tools of professionalism. This one mistake they made before they even got their degrees will follow them for the rest of their careers, or what’s left of them.

Student newspapers, like all newspapers, have a responsibility to its readers. As someone who participates in a college newspaper, I feel a responsibility to the well-being of the sources I quote in my writing. Multiple sources used in The Daily’s coverage faced disciplinary action for protesting Sessions’ speech. It’s important to point out, though, that any disciplinary action students faced for protesting the speech are on the individual student, not the newspaper. The students quoted made a choice to be interviewed. 

Covering college campuses and the small areas surrounding them provides a limited number of sources, especially on a campus the size of Webster. If you anger an already small pool of sources, especially in a public way like The Daily did, your subsequent reporting will suffer. If no one wants to talk to you, you might as well dissolve the newspaper. A reporter can’t report if people are too afraid to talk. 

One commenter who claimed to be an attorney posted, “I wish you had used this editorial to explain to your fellow students how journalism and the First Amendment work.” My biggest concern when reading The Dailey’s apology had nothing to do with the insanity of the apology itself. Rather, what’s happening to the First Amendment? What will the future look like for free speech if college newspapers get chastised for practicing basic news gathering?

Stress on the freedom of the press hasn’t been contained at Northwestern University lately. In mid-September, reporters from Harvard University’s student newspaper, The Crimson, covered a student-led protest calling for the abolition of the Federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency (ICE). In standard journalistic practice, The Crimson reached out to ICE for comment. ICE did not comment. The Crimson noted this in one line of their article. The university upheaved. 

An online petition circulated the internet afterward accusing The Crimson of “cultural insensitivity.” Several campus groups, including the Harvard Democrats, told members not to speak to The Crimson unless the paper changed the way it gathered news. Harvard’s student governing body passed a resolution two months later forcing The Crimson to change its policies. 

Society has a growing misconception of the role of a free press in society. I’m paying for journalism education to remedy society’s playground arguments of “I’m right, you’re wrong.”

I had a sense of understanding following my initial shock after reading The Daily’s apology.

Unfortunately, the apology wasn’t satire, but reality. Freedom of the press is essential to democracy. Let’s keep it that way, free.

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