Opinion: Northwestern reporters and protestors need to remember that student journalism is still journalism

by Jordyn Pair · Nov 13th, 2019 3:36 pm

Last Updated Dec 15th, 2020 at 4:12 pm

Six months ago, I was a student journalist.

I have been both a reporter and an editor. My newspaper covered student outrage and administration flubs. During my four years, I reported on alt-right protests, police shootings, and Trump’s election.

And I made plenty of mistakes.

I have misspelled names and used the wrong title. I approved incorrect headlines. I was known in my college newsroom for delivering work at the last second. When I wrote my first obituary, I accidentally made the widow cry within five minutes of starting the interview.

Mistakes are part of being a student journalist.

But in the case of The Northwestern Daily, the only mistake they made was assuming they made a mistake.

The Daily issued an editorial early this week apologizing for the way it covered a protested speech on campus from former Attorney General Jeff Sessions. In the editorial, The Daily apologized for publishing photos of the event, reaching out to potential sources using information from a student directory, and running the name of a protester who agreed to speak with the paper.

All three practices are standard in journalism.

The Daily’s backtracking was an attempt to protect marginalized students, including those of color, from potential backlash from the school’s administration and other students.

“We did not want to play a role in any disciplinary action that could be taken by the University. Some students have also faced threats for being sources in articles published by other outlets,” the paper said in its statement. “When the source in our article requested their name be removed, we chose to respect the student’s concerns for their privacy and safety.”

The paper’s editor-in-chief also weighed in.

But both parties — reporters and reported — seem to have forgotten that student journalism is real journalism.

College can feel like a bubble, a place where students are protected from being held accountable for their ever-changing thoughts and occasionally-ill-planned actions. However, college should not be a shield between students and accountability, but rather a safety net of understanding that they are still growing.

What Northwestern student reporters need right now is reassurance that they originally made the right call in their reporting and that they followed standard journalistic practices. They should also be applauded for their desire to protect marginalized or at-risk students.

But Northwestern students also need a better understanding that reporting and protesting in college can and should have real-world consequences. Anything less would be an indication that what they are doing is not meaningful and is instead the scrawlings and shoutings of uneducated youth.

Student reporters run the risk of upsetting both fellow students and school officials, echoing the backlash graduated reporters receive from their community and local government. When I was the editor for the campus news section for my student paper, I was questioned by school officials over at least two different stories. We also had a business pull ads from the paper after we ran an article the owner did not deem as favorable. This only meant the stories we followed had an impact.

Similarly, student protesters should know they risk retaliation from administration or animosity from other students, just like their older counterparts risk losing their jobs or friends for speaking out about their beliefs. It’s why so many protesters cover their faces.

The problem at Northwestern highlights a lack of political and media literacy. Protesters, including student ones, should go into their demonstrations with the understanding they will be photographed and potentially interviewed. Anyone uncomfortable with it should not consent to an interview or appear at a protest.

It’s unfortunately something that pervades outside the university setting. I once had a protester in Washington, D.C, threaten to call my editor after she saw me filming her, even as I tried to explain that I had the legal right to do so.

Neither reporting or protesting is for someone who is a people-pleaser.

Holding student newspapers to different ethical standards than a “real” newspaper — including putting the burden on them to protect their university or its students beyond what would be afforded to them in a “professional” paper — can send student publications down unwanted paths.

Take for example Liberty University’s censorship scandal that broke in 2018. World magazine reported that Bruce Kirk, Liberty’s dean of the school of communication and digital content, told staff that “your job is to keep the LU reputation and the image as it is.”

Kirk made the statements after several members of the staff were fired for tarnishing the reputation of the school.

“Don’t destroy the image of LU. Pretty simple. OK? Well, you might say, ‘Well, that’s not my job, my job is to do journalism,'” Kirk was reported saying. “‘My job is to be First Amendment. My job is to go out and dig and investigate, and I should do anything I want to do because I’m a journalist.’ So let’s get that notion out of your head. OK?”

Just like institutions want to protect the school’s reputation, student reporters have the desire to protect their fellow students. However, it is not the job of the student newspaper to protect either, but rather to report full and accurate information to the best of its ability.

The Daily got it right the first time, and they will get it right again. Their reporters are still doing real journalism, just with the understanding they are still growing and learning. It is an understanding that should also be extended to student protesters. Being in college is a safety net for mistakes, not immunity from them.

Students still deal with real problems, real arguments, and real politics — and it is the job of the student paper to report those because student journalism is real journalism.

Jordyn Pair is an alumna of Hillsdale College and previous reporter for The Hillsdale Collegian. Follow her on Twitter at @JordynPair.


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