The Daily Northwestern Drama Over Jeff Sessions Coverage Is a Teachable Moment, Journalism Professors Say

The backlash The Daily Northwestern received for both its recent coverage of students protesting former Attorney General Jeff Sessions and its subsequent apology for that coverage shows a need to educate people about journalism.

"This is not about the 'snowflake' students at Northwestern. We need to teach people the role of a free press in a democracy," Rafael Lorente, the associate dean for academic affairs at the University of Maryland's Phillip Merrill College of Journalism, told Newsweek.

After Northwestern students accused the newspaper of violating people's privacy in covering Sessions' November 5 appearance, The Daily Northwestern apologized on Sunday for publishing photographs and names of student protesters and using phone numbers listed in the student directory to solicit interviews. The apology caught the attention of professional journalists, who criticized the student paper for issuing a mea culpa when it was engaging in basic journalistic principles.

Professors and deans from some of the top-rated journalism schools agreed the Daily didn't have to apologize, but they also told Newsweek the professionals could have used the moment to mentor the young journalists in less critical ways instead. The incident was one some professors were already discussing in their classes, as it taught students they don't have absolute control of their privacy, how to cover marginalized communities and that backlash is part of the territory.

Renita Coleman, a journalism professor at the University of Texas at Austin, told Newsweek every student at the school must take at least one media literacy course. Given the Northwestern students' objection to journalists using photographs of them from a public event, she floated the idea that every student, at all universities, should attend a lecture about the role of a free press and how it works.

Part of knowing how a free press operates is the understanding that despite having control over what you post on social media, you don't get to choose what's shared about you when you're in public.

"People, students or not, need to understand that while they are free to protest, they are also protesting in public spaces and forfeit their right to privacy," William Celis, an associate professor of journalism at the University of Southern California, told Newsweek.

jeff sessions daily northwestern backlash
Attorney General Jeff Sessions speaks at a press conference on October 26, 2018. Northwestern University's student newspaper was criticized for how it covered a student protest during Sessions' on-campus speech this month. Getty/Aaron P. Bernstein

The generation of journalists graduating from colleges and universities in the coming years will only know a world where people react to things in real time. Instead of criticism being leveled at journalists through private phone calls or emails, they're now the target of barrages of social media posts, some of which come from the president himself.

President Donald Trump and the media have had a tumultuous relationship. Members of the media argue he poses a threat to the founding concept of a free press in America, while he claims the media inaccurately covers his administration to promote their own agenda. Students criticizing the Daily for taking photos of them at a public protest and contacting them about interviews—both legitimate means of collecting news—gives credence to Trump's claims, Coleman said.

"This is just admitting we're the enemy of the American people when we're not," the University of Texas professor said.

That's not to say student journalists should consider their peers to be a no-holds-barred breeding ground for stories. Unlike politicians, who know the implications of speaking to the media, ordinary people may not have the foresight about the consequences of going public.

Coleman and Lorente encouraged students to approach coverage of people who may not be media savvy with additional care and respect. Since journalists haven't always "been there" for marginalized communities, Lorente said, it's understandable they'd be suspicious of the media. In some cases, such as publicly naming an undocumented person, journalists should explain what could happen if a person enters the spotlight, Coleman advised.

The Daily's apology explained that the paper was working on setting guidelines for how to cover marginalized groups in the future, an adjustment Paul Mihailidis, a journalism professor at Emerson College, championed as a step in the right direction for all journalists, not just students. While some critics pointed to the apology as a sign of institutional failure at Northwestern's program, Mihailidis said the discussion about marginalized communities was a reflection of strong journalism education.

"I'm empowered to think about the focus of how journalists [ethically] reflect marginalized communities, and how do we report in a time of heightened polarization, fracturing of trust and technologies that favor moral outrage over nuanced dialogue," Mihailidis told Newsweek.

Joey Safchik, news director for the Northwestern News Network (NNN), the student-run television network, told Newsweek the station acknowledged it also has work to do in thoughtfully covering marginalized communities. Improvements in that area of coverage, she said, was the organization's greatest goal.

"I think it's possible to be a careful or sensitive reporter without succumbing to pressure not to report at all," Safchik said.

Newsweek reached out to The Daily but did not receive a response in time for publication.

Lorente said people having both the right to protest and the right to cover the protest is part of the "beauty of a democratic society."

Just as protesting can come with consequences, such as repercussions from a university or employer and unwanted media attention, those tasked with reporting on the protests also face repercussions. Lorente said reporters can be subject to unwanted attention too.

"Whether we like it or not, there is a backlash to what we do. Sometimes it's people yelling at us or sending us nasty emails or tweets, but it's also governments both in this country and other countries attacking what we do, questioning our place in society," Lorente said. "We have to teach students to live in this world."

Northwestern students also urged NNN to retract its coverage, which showed student protesters chanting outside the building where Sessions was speaking. At one point, NNN politics director Olivia Olander said during the broadcast that students entered the building and were met by police officers. After a series of discussions, NNN decided not to pull its coverage of the protests because it considered it to be accurate, fair and part of its obligation to inform the community of campus events.

While the University of Maryland's journalism school has adapted its curriculum to meet the demands of these times, Lorente admitted the school is struggling with how to best teach dealing with backlash. Exposing students to additional coping mechanisms, as well as methods of responding or not responding to criticism, are a few possibilities Lorente said the school is considering.

The question of how to prepare students for the contemporary world of journalism is one every school across the nation has to answer. Mihailidis said that the profession's norms have been shifting for years and that the incident at Northwestern highlights challenges educators face today.

"At points like this, it reveals some of the complexities we face in teaching journalists how to report effectively and ethically in an ever-shifting digital culture," the professor said.