Student Journalism Is Journalism and Should Be Treated as Such

In the face of criticism, it is worth reconsidering if standard journalistic practices as we know them now best serve the communities in which they are implemented, but only within a deep understanding of and steadfast adherence to the core journalistic tenants of accuracy, objectivity and transparency.

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Earlier this month, the Northwestern University’s student-run journal of record, The Daily Northwestern, garnered criticism for its reporting of an on-campus protest occurring in conjunction to a Northwestern University College Republicans event featuring former Attorney General Jeff Sessions.

In response to these concerns, the Daily published an editorial addressing its coverage and apologizing for what the editorial board described as contributing harm to NU students. In its statement, the Daily apologizes for posting photographs of event participants to the publication’s Twitter page and for acquiring potential source contact information using the Northwestern directory. 

The Daily was well-intentioned with its apology but off-base from its responsibilities as a newspaper and, therefore, disconnected from the gravity such a role entails. In kowtowing to external critique on what were otherwise ethically sound reporting decisions, the publication temporarily sacrificed its journalistic credibility and divorced itself from the realm of responsible reporting.

The Ram does not fault the publication for attempting to rectify a nuanced situation in the way it best saw fit. As fellow student journalists, we cannot emphasize enough how upsetting it is to make decisions with good intentions, only to see them have negative impacts.

That being said, journalists of all kinds have a difficult job to do. Student journalists might lack the experience of senior figures in the industry and, therefore, work on a learning curve, but as aspiring figures in an increasingly discredited field, they should and must be held to the universal moral standards the position inherently requires.

Protests are events specifically designed to garner publicity and increase community dialogue surrounding a particular issue. As such, protests entail no expectation of privacy for their participants. Journalists not only have a right but a responsibility to thoroughly cover these types of events.

Similarly, cold contacting has been a predominant facet of the journalistic process since phonebooks were the main suppliers of contact information. It is unrealistic and unnecessary to expect journalists to get in touch with potential sources without such unsolicited outreach.

It is clear the staff at the Daily had the best interests of its general community in mind when it issued its editorial and altered its coverage.

That the Daily apologized for engaging in such standard journalistic practices, however, severely puts into question its commitment to the larger ethical motives such methods serve. Accepted journalistic practices are followed not merely because they are standardized but rather because they ensure communities remain wholly informed, accurately represented and the utmost democratic.

Harvard University’s daily student newspaper, The Crimson, recently garnered similar outrage after reporting on a rally organized by campus group Act on a Dream that called for the abolition of United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

More than 650 people signed an online petition condemning the Crimson’s coverage of the event due to reporters’ contacting of ICE for a comment on the criticisms of the agency. The Crimson then issued an editorial explaining that the editorial board stood by its actions and detailed why it did.

It is critical that modern publications continually reassess their internal moral compasses and realign their missions with that of greater journalistic purpose. These types of decisions should not rest entirely on outside voices, nor should they cling to antiquated traditions. 

Such balance is difficult to achieve but crucial to maintain. The Crimson did a commendable job of addressing concerns with transparency while maintaining an adherence to ethical guidelines, and in doing so, reinforced readers’ confidence in its reputability. 

In an evolving media landscape, technology can add a layer of nuance to the conversation surrounding ethical reporting. Ultimately, however, contemporary moral questions prove not to be so different from the ones our predecessors found themselves asking in the past. 

A university newspaper has a duty to report on students who rally in a public space with the intent to attract attention to a certain on-campus cause. Modern coverage of these types of events can and should include digital components, such as pictures or videos.

Reporters also have a duty to reach out to those involved in the event to offer an opportunity for comment. Sending a text message to numbers found through an online directory is a credible way to do so. 

It is admirable that the Daily would amend its actions in an attempt to best serve those in the NU community, but in doing so, the publication incidentally failed to align itself with the greater mission it aims to serve. 

The Ram has been fortunate enough to produce meaningful coverage on pressing issues that has both opened and contributed to valuable dialogue on our campus and beyond. It is because we maintain a professional approach to the job that we are able to tackle such difficult topics successfully. 

That being said, we have made our share of mistakes, as all outlets inevitably do, and sympathize with the position in which the staff of the Daily currently finds itself. University papers are a place for young journalists to learn by doing, and occasionally, we do things wrong.

In the face of criticism, it is worth reconsidering if standard journalistic practices as we know them now best serve the communities in which they are implemented, but only within a deep understanding of and steadfast adherence to the core journalistic tenants of accuracy, objectivity and transparency.

We encourage all outlets to continue attempting to navigate the delicate balance between empathy and journalistic rigor, and we will continue to join you.