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Alone At The Desk - 18: The Daily's Apology and Mine

A group of student journalists apologized for their work. They didn't need to apologize for anything. But, I do. And so do a lot of other professional journalists.
A podcast by 13 On Your Side anchor Nick LaFave. He talks about life, the news industry, and life in the industry.

GRAND RAPIDS, Michigan — Being a journalist is a hard job.  Aside from the difficulty of just finding, covering, confirming, producing and publishing accurate reports on deadline with varying factors... there is the atmosphere of animosity that surrounds the job, and the public attacks - both verbal and physical - that go along with it.  As a grown adult, I have nearly two decades of experience and some calloused skin that helps me deal with all that.

But, recently, a group of student journalists at one of the nation's top J-schools were so shaken by criticism of the work that they felt the need to put out a letter apologizing for it.  They didn't need to.  But they did.  Now, a lot of professional journalists need to apologize to them.  And I'm one of them.

Former Attorney General Jeff Sessions appeared for a speech at Northwestern University.  The student newspaper - the Daily - covered that speech, and the protests that went along with it.

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I don't know all the details of how they went about their work.  But, I've read most of it, and it seems to be well thought researched, unbiased, thorough, and written with better grammar that I use on my best day.  But, sometime after publication, several members of the student body - apparently those who were involved in the protests - started voicing their displeasure with The Daily's work.  So much so that The Daily took - what I imagine to be - the unprecedented step of issuing a Letter From the Editor - literally - apologizing for their work.

Some of it reads, "We recognize that we contributed to the harm students experienced, and we wanted to apologize for and address the mistakes that we made that night — along with how we plan to move forward."

Later on, they write, "Some protesters found photos posted to reporters' Twitter accounts re-traumatizing and invasive. Those photos have since been taken down."

And then this: "Some students also voiced concern about the methods that Daily staffers used to reach out to them. Some of our staff members who were covering the event used Northwestern's directory to obtain phone numbers for students beforehand and texted them to ask if they'd be willing to be interviewed. We recognize being contacted like this is an invasion of privacy, and we've spoken with those reporters — along with our entire staff — about the correct way to reach out to students for stories."

Read the full statement here

By the end - and it's a long statement, I'm leaving out a lot here - they say, "We hope we can rebuild trust that we weakened or lost last week."

First and foremost, journalists of Northwestern University, I can only speak for myself, but I'm going to make an educated guess that mine is a popular opinion: you have lost no trust, nor has it been weakened.  You have nothing to apologize for.  You have committed the sin of good journalism, for which the penance is nothing more or less than a pat on the back, and a 'do it again tomorrow.'

You contacted students through their public numbers listed in the school directory.  You posted pictures from a public event in your story and on social media.  And, I get that you offered someone anonymity after the fact - but again - they were at a public protest.  The IDEA is to get attention.  If they want anonymity, they wouldn't have shown up.  So, you absolutely have some things to learn.  But, that's why you're in school!  You're supposed to be making these kinds of mistakes.  And you'll get there.

But I understand why they felt then need to put out that letter.  I and probably every journalist in the business today have been criticized, yelled at, threatened or even attacked, for doing our jobs.  The years of experience and scars can develop a pretty good force-field from those taunts.  

But when you're in your late teens and early 20s just trying to learn the job, I can tell you from experience how intimidating it is for someone to question you, even mildly.  You second guess yourself, your work, your talent, even your objectivity if someone is accusing you of being biased.

And what's natural when you feel you've offended someone?  You apologize.  Even if you don't think you're wrong, you say, "I"m sorry."  We've all been there.  "Gosh, you're upset!  Clearly I've done something wrong or you wouldn't be this fired up!  I'm sorry, I won't do it again!"

And I doubt it was just guilt of fearing they'd done a bad job that prompted the apology.  I'm sure they cared so deeply about the people and community they cover that they genuinely wanted to make it right.  The apology came from a good place.  Unfortunately, that place was a corner they were backed into by a group of people who simply didn't like the truths they were telling.  A day later, the dean of the department issued a statement, defending his students.

"...let me be perfectly clear, the coverage by The Daily Northwestern of the protests stemming from the recent appearance on campus by former Attorney General Jeff Sessions was in no way beyond the bounds of fair, responsible journalism."

"...it is naïve, not to mention wrong-headed, to declare, as many of our student activists have, that The Daily staff and other student journalists had somehow violated the personal space of the protestors by reporting on the proceedings, which were conducted in the open and were designed, ostensibly, to garner attention."

"...their well-intentioned gesture sends a chilling message about journalism and its role in society. It suggests that we are not independent authors of the community narrative, but are prone to bowing to the loudest and most influential voices in our orbit."

"...waging war on our students on social media—threatening them both physically and emotionally—is beyond the pale. Our community deserves a more civil level of discourse."

"And to the swarm of alums and journalists who are outraged about The Daily editorial and have been equally rancorous in their condemnation of our students on social media, I say, give the young people a break. I know you feel that you were made of sterner stuff and would have the fortitude and courage of your conviction to fend off the campus critics. But you are not living with them through this firestorm, facing the brutal onslaught of venom and hostility that has been directed their way on weaponized social media. Don't make judgments about them or their mettle until you've walked in their shoes. What they need at this moment is our support and the encouragement to stay the course."

Read Medill Dean Charles Whitaker's statement here

Dean Whitaker is really right on all his points, but especially this last one.  When I first read what happened, I got upset.  And I misdirected that emotion on Twitter at the Daily's account.  I basically fired off three tweets telling them not to apologize for good work.  But, I could have been a lot nicer about it. I should have been.  And I apologize to them.

Because all of this highlights a bigger problem: news, facts and those who gather them are under consistent assault. Not just from the 'fake news' crowd on the hard right. But, also (at least in this case) from student activists on the hard left.

These kids need that support from their dean, their student body, and those of us already in the industry. The job isn't easy. It may have been harder at some point. though, I haven't experienced it. press on, future reporters. We're a lesser society without strong journalism and brave journalists, like you.

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