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Roundtable: Northwestern University Journalism Controversy


First, we're going to talk about an event on the campus of Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., that's caused an uproar. Not so much about what happened during the event but about how student news organizations decided to cover it.

Earlier this month, former Attorney General Jeff Sessions was invited by the Northwestern College Republicans to give a speech on campus. Protesters gathered outside, and some disrupted the speech by pounding on the doors and climbing through the windows. Reporters and photographers from the student newspaper The Daily Northwestern covered the speech and the protests for the next day's paper, interviewing people in the crowd. Student photojournalists posted some of their photos to Twitter. Then, last Sunday, The Daily Northwestern published an editorial, apologizing for its coverage of the protests that day. The editorial board wrote, quote, "we recognize that we contributed to the harm students experienced. Some protesters found photos posted to reporters' Twitter accounts retraumatizing and invasive," unquote.

Well, that caused another outcry; a good deal of it from more senior journalists who called it embarrassing and others who saw it as another example of the fragility and superficiality of modern campus culture. Well, this caused us to want to know more about how other colleges and universities are working through these questions, not just about how to cover fellow students fairly at a time when some of these students might have been victims of torture or might have been undocumented or experienced ICE raids. But beyond that, what about these larger questions about the balance between empathy and journalistic rigor?

And we've called on a few student journalists to talk more about this. Haley Lerner is the editor-in-chief of Boston University's student-run newspaper The Daily Free Press.

Haley, welcome.

HALEY LERNER: Hi. Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: Reese Oxner is the editor-in-chief of The Shorthorn at the University of Texas at Arlington.

Reese, welcome to you.

REESE OXNER: Thank you. Happy to be here.

MARTIN: And Colin Boyle is a photojournalist at The Daily Northwestern.

Hi, Colin.

COLIN BOYLE: Hi there.

MARTIN: So let's start with you. The protest at Northwestern - you took photos of the protest and the protesters. You posted some of them to Twitter, and you later took them down. I do want to mention that you're also a former photo editor, so you have some experience in deciding what to publish, what not to publish. What was your thought process, if I may, about taking them down?

BOYLE: Absolutely, yeah. So after the event ended, I went home to edit the photos. And I started seeing backlash on Twitter from students and activists. And so I called up my photo editor at The Daily Northwestern. I also called the editor-in-chief and told them that I was coming into the newsroom. I addressed this issue of the backlash, and I said that we need to sit down and talk about our photo usage and what we choose to run in the paper. But also, we need to respond to the responses that I've been getting on Twitter.

MARTIN: What was the main reason that you removed your images and that The Daily removed the images?

BOYLE: Yeah, so it's pretty nuanced. The Daily Northwestern as a whole, as a publication, has had a history of misrepresenting and doing not the best job covering marginalized communities. And so the reason why we decided to take down the images is because this is our protocol - to have these conversations in general as a whole. Like, when I was photographing the event and there were people who were attending the Jeff Sessions event, they came up to me and asked me to not take their image. And I kindfully accepted that. It's the same way as if a person doesn't want to give a quote, then you accept that.

MARTIN: And is there anything you think people misunderstand that you want to clarify?

BOYLE: Yeah, of course. Yeah, totally. That's why I put out the (unintelligible) - just to add transparency to our intentions, my intention as a photojournalist, as - and as a reporter is never to hurt anyone, to cause any additional trauma, to manipulate stories. I'm here to tell stories and to inform our community and our audience. And I felt like I was doing just that. But I wasn't being as transparent in my process at the moment. And looking back at it now, it's caused for a lot of time a reflection of what our job is as journalists and our impact and the privilege that our job has, where we're not as impacted by coverage, sometimes, versus those who we're reporting on.

MARTIN: Well, I don't know. This is a tough one. I mean, it is a public event, was it not?

BOYLE: Mmm hmm.

MARTIN: So is there some - you think there's some expectation of privacy at a public event? That's the question I think a lot of us are struggling with is how is it - if it's a public event that you've chosen to attend, how is it that you have an expectation of privacy?

BOYLE: That's something I'm still trying to understand and grapple with. I think, at the end of the day, just making sure we're transparent about this is a public event. We are here to report on it just as much as those who are there to protest or those who are there to attend the event - the same amount of rights there.

MARTIN: So, Haley, this is an issue you had to address at Boston University. Just this week, the conservative blogger, writer Ben Shapiro came to campus to deliver a speech called America Was Not Built On Slavery, It Was Built On Freedom. Hundreds of students protested. And the student group Black BU wrote an open letter, saying that they felt abandoned, infuriated and ignored by the administration's decision to allow the speech but also, as I read it, that they were disturbed that their fellow students wanted this speech to happen. So a student journalist tasked with covering it - tell me a little bit about your process. For example, was there any question about covering it?

LERNER: Yeah. I mean, we definitely were extremely cautious with covering it. We knew that, especially, you know, with the recent controversies with other campus newspapers that there was a risk of people finding problems with our reporting. And, really, we just thought, we have to stick to our standards. We stick to our values as reporters. Our entire process that entire night was, what can we do to best inform our community? And how can we do reporting that satisfies them, whether people are angry that he's coming or that people that want him there? We just wanted to make sure we represented everyone and we're as factual and clear about our information as possible.

MARTIN: So, Reese, your paper, The Shorthorn, has covered a number of campus protests at UT Arlington. And I imagine you think about the same issues. The Shorthorn editors published an editorial about the incident at Northwestern called "The Daily Northwestern's Apology Should Be A Learning Experience For Everybody." So what kind of learning experience do you think it was?

OXNER: I think it is a learning experience about what kind of conversations that should go into coverage as well as when you should stand your ground as well. I think a lot of the backlash that was received - which was a little bit too harsh, in my opinion, especially from the professional journalism side - was mostly talking about the regular - just journalistic practices. I think that at the end of the day, we have to balance with what we know is right to do with these conversations of empathy and how we cover events like that.

MARTIN: So I want to note that you write an editorial about it in a - well, the editorial criticized prominent writers from places like The Washington Post for using their platforms to criticize and shame student journalists. Is it more, tonally, you felt that people who are that senior should have been more tolerant of the mistakes of people who are just learning? Or is it - do you think that there's some bigger journalistic difference in how more senior journalists, older journalists and younger journalists approach the job?

OXNER: I'll take that into - I think tonally, there was an issue. Overall, there was a lot of more attacking, I felt like, than trying to be in a mentorship role or a learning-type situation. Secondly, I think student journalists are more mindful of serving their communities. We're becoming more mindful of how diverse our communities often are and how historically, coverage hasn't represented that appropriately. And so I think - I don't think things like cancel culture or social issues should affect the actual mechanics of reporting. If we're being responsible journalists, the actual mechanics should stay the same. But it can't affect the way we approach events, the way we decide coverage and the way we cover them.

MARTIN: But in this instance, they did cancel their coverage in the sense that they removed photos. And some people feel like that is censorship.

OXNER: I wouldn't - I would say for my staff, we would not decide to remove photos because, like we discussed, I don't think there is an expectation of privacy for a public event.

MARTIN: So going forward, what do you think you're going to draw from this?

OXNER: I think that, for instance, taking photos at a public event and using a directory to look up people involved in an event are standard practices for journalism and have been for years. And so that's something that we could stand behind. But like my other colleagues have said, I think there is a piece of education for what we do and transparency and making sure that, at the same time, while we are maintaining those standards of journalism, if we do have a chance to educate our readers or be transparent, I think that can only help them understand our process and why we do what we do.

MARTIN: I'm still trying to understand, like, what's ethical here, what you consider ethical because to others, the newspaper - when people criticize them - didn't do their job or they were intimidated or that other people said, well, they didn't like it, so they're basically shaping their coverage because of what people like or don't like. What am I missing here?

OXNER: So for me, I think that the standards of ethics should be the same for professional and student journalism because we're operating as journalists. We aren't trying to make concessions with our sources or with our coverage. And so I think when I'm saying ethical discussions need to happen, I don't mean in this case. From what I can tell, from The Daily Northwestern's coverage, I think that posting the photos and covering the public event - I don't think anything was wrong with that, ethically.

I think they - the conversation should be had because when you have those conversations, you're making sure that you're not missing any blind spots as far as you're not publishing something that doesn't fit in line with the other standards that we already have. But in this case, I think, from my newsroom, we would publish photos from a public event and attempt to get as - the interviews that we needed to accurately depict it, regardless of who the protesters were or what the event was.

BOYLE: We as student journalists here - we're trying to have this conversation. And we, obviously, respect and understand First Amendment and ethics of journalism. But we're also just trying to make our intentions more clear and our work more understandable and more accessible.

LERNER: Yeah, I think it's important to emphasize that in the conversation of - you know, of these more senior journalists criticizing the young journalists, it's not necessarily they were wrong. I think there's some valid concerns about apologizing for having standard journalistic practices. But, you know, there is a learning process. There's a curve.

And telling people, you know, you're never going to get a job in journalism just for apologizing for something with well intentions, I think, is the wrong move. And I think it's important as student journalists to - you know, when you're getting such backlash - because it happens and it feels really painful for some people because, you know, you're around students that you know, and they're your peers in your classes. But it's important to know that just because you have close relationships with a lot of people that you might be reporting on - not in terms of personal but in terms of they're around you - it's still important to treat them the same way you treat any other subject of a story or participant in any protest, you know? You have to give them the same respect that you'd give to any other subject of a story.

MARTIN: That's Haley Lerner. She's the editor of Boston University's student-run newspaper The Daily Free Press. We were also joined by Reese Oxner, who is the editor-in-chief of The Shorthorn at the University of Texas at Arlington. And Colin Boyle is a photojournalist at The Daily Northwestern.

Thank you all so much for joining us.

LERNER: Thank you for having me.

OXNER: Thank you.

BOYLE: Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.