Northwestern's Journalism Dean Defends Jeff Sessions Protest Coverage, Says Students Endured 'Vicious Bullying' For the 'Sin of Doing Journalism'

While Northwestern University's student newspaper issued a mea culpa for how it covered former Attorney General Jeff Sessions' recent on-campus appearance, the journalism school's dean stood firmly behind the coverage.

"I am deeply troubled by the vicious bullying and badgering that the students responsible for that coverage have endured for the 'sin' of doing journalism," Charles Whitaker, the dean of Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications, said in a statement on Tuesday.

Students criticized The Daily Northwestern's methods of covering Sessions' November 5 event, which included reporters posting photos of protesters on their Twitter accounts and texting students asking if they would be willing to be interviewed. On Sunday, editors from The Daily apologized for contributing to the "harm students experienced" when Sessions was on campus and invading the privacy of their fellow students.

Generally, apologies are intended to mitigate criticism, but this one caused an entirely new round of backlash. Professional journalists characterized the apology as an "embarrassment," because reaching out to people for stories and taking photos of a public event were basic journalistic practices.

Given the criticism Harvard University's student newspaper, The Crimson recently received for asking Immigrations and Customs Enforcement to comment on a story about an "Abolish ICE" student rally, some claimed it was the start of a troubling trend of students attempting to control journalistic narratives.

jeff sessions northwestern university apology dean
Attorney General Jeff Sessions waits to speak at the Marshal Service's Director's Honorary Awards ceremony in Washington, D.C., on November 1, 2018. On Sunday, The Daily Northwestern apologized for how it covered Sessions' on-campus appearance, but the dean of the journalism school stood by the coverage. Jim WATSON/AFP/Getty

Whitaker acknowledged that when done poorly or unfairly, journalism could "scar" individuals and communities. While there was "no shortage of instances" of this, The Daily's coverage of Sessions was not one of them.

"But let me be perfectly clear, the coverage by The Daily 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," Whitaker said in his statement.

Joey Safchik, news director for the Northwestern News Network (NNN), the university's Emmy Award–winning student-run television network, told Newsweek they were also urged to retract their reporting. By unanimous decision of its executive board, they decided to not take down their coverage because they were confident their reporting was accurate and fair.

"We have a responsibility to our campus. It's a nuanced situation and context is extremely important, but I don't think anyone should have to apologize for doing accurate journalism," Safchik said.

Safchik disagreed with The Daily's decision to apologize, as well as, its acquiescence that contacting students through phone numbers listed in the student directory was an invasion of privacy, but noted she respects the people who run the paper.

Another problem students had with The Daily's coverage was that it identified protesters, possibly putting them in a position to face disciplinary action. Northwestern doesn't have an amnesty policy for student protesters, and President Morton Shapiro said students who hurt someone or shut down speech will face consequences.

This dynamic between students and the university, The Daily editors said, means that they need to operate differently than a professional publication.

"Know that our staff is doing the best we can to do our jobs as student journalists while working through gaps in knowledge about what student journalism consists of—and showing that we at least hear the real concerns from students," Troy Closson, editor in chief of The Daily, posted on Twitter.

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

Although NNN is cautious not to put students in a vulnerable situation, Safchik said the station treats itself as a professional publication and had an obligation to report the events that transpired at a public protest.

"We would do it the same way if it happened again," Safchik said. "We had three reporters on the ground, spoke to representatives from all sides and have verified every word we've said on air or on social media. That's the kind of journalism I came to Northwestern to pursue, and the work Medill encourages."

Whitaker called it "naïve" and "wrong-headed" for student activists to claim the reporting violated the personal space of protesters. Some students also criticized The Daily journalists with being "rude" and "insensitive," a claim that Whitaker explained would be dealt with by working with students on reporting techniques.

The dean refused to apologize for encouraging students to report on the life and times at Northwestern but said in his statement that he understood why The Daily editors did, claiming they were "beat into submission by the vitriol and public shaming." Although intended to be healing for the community, the dean said it sent a "chilling message about journalism."

Instead of caving to the "loudest and most influential voices," Whitaker encouraged students to utilize the opinion pages to critique coverage or join the staff.