A routine news story became a viral controversy Sunday night after the editors of Northwestern University’s student-run newspaper issued an apology for interviewing and photographing campus protesters.
Journalists from around the country quickly took to Twitter to attack the paper’s staff, saying they shouldn’t apologize for doing their job.
The protests were sparked by a Nov. 5 speech by former U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions. The campus chapter of College Republicans had invited Sessions to the university’s Evanston campus, but some liberal student-activists showed up to protest the former Trump administration appointee.
A student photographer took pictures of clashes with campus police and posted updates to Twitter. And freshman reporters searched the campus directory for cell phone numbers of the demonstrators.
Some of the activists later told the newspaper they believed the photos and calls were an invasion of privacy, and worried about being disciplined by the school for their involvement in the protests.
Editors at the paper took those complaints seriously.
On Sunday, Daily Northwestern editors wrote “The Daily was not the paper that Northwestern students deserve.”
“Some protesters found photos posted to the reporters’ Twitter accounts retraumatizing and invasive,” the editorial continued. “While our goal is to document history and spread information, nothing is more important than our fellow students feeling safe – and in situations like this, that they are benefiting from our coverage rather than being actively harmed by it.”
The paper, which operates independently and without staff advisers, conceded that the reporters methods were an invasion of privacy.
But the apology exploded on Twitter. Professional journalists nationwide said the reporters were simply doing their job.
Many called the editorial embarrassing and noted the Medill School of Journalism is one of the profession’s most respected schools.
Daily Northwestern editor Troy Clossen wrote on Twitter Monday that the paper knows its right to cover student protests, but understands the need to be empathetic.
“There’s a lot that I could talk about, but first want to say that we covered the protest to its full extent and stand by our reporting,” he wrote. “Our statement addressed some legitimate areas of growth we noticed in our reporting, but also over-corrected in others.”
Northwestern Dean Charles Whitaker issued a statement Tuesday saying the reporters did not violate the privacy of protesters and were bullied into apologizing.
“I understand why The Daily editors felt the need to issue their mea culpa. They were beat into submission by the vitriol and relentless public shaming they have been subjected to since the Sessions stories appeared,” he said. “I think it is a testament to their sensitivity and sense of community responsibility that they convinced themselves that an apology would affect a measure of community healing. I might offer, however, that their well-intentioned gesture sends a chilling message about journalism and its role in society.”
And the university said in a statement that it supported the right of the protesters to demonstrate and that of reporters to document it.
“The University does not express political opinions but supports academic freedom and inquiry,” the statement read. “Northwestern is firmly committed to supporting all viewpoints, vigorous debate and free expression on campus – abiding principles that are fundamental to all levels of our enterprise.”
Illinois College Press Association President Chris Kaergard called the backlash harsh and said it should be treated as a teaching moment.
“It has not been an opportunity for a discussion on that nuance or an opportunity for people to suggest alternatives or offer advice,” he said.
Vivian McCall is a news intern for WBEZ.