The student newspaper at Northwestern University apologized this week for covering a student protest of an appearance by Jeff Sessions. The apology was a terrible idea and the dean of the journalism school came out and said so yesterday. “Their well-intentioned gesture sends a chilling message about journalism and its role in society,” Dean Charles Whitaker wrote. He added, “It suggests that we are not independent authors of the community narrative, but are prone to bowing to the loudest and most influential voices in our orbit.” In other words, it’s not a good thing that the student paper got browbeaten into recanting by far left activists. That should have been the end of it, but today the NY Times published a piece which suggests the activists may have had a point. It’s titled “News or ‘Trauma Porn’? Student Journalists Face Blowback on Campus.”
The episode was the latest in a series of flare-ups on college campuses across the country, where shifting sensibilities and heightened criticism of the media have made the environment thornier for student journalists.
In interviews, some student journalists said they had addressed the clashes by adhering to what they described as core tenets of a free press. Others said they found themselves struggling to meet two dueling goals: responding to the changing expectations of the students they cover, particularly from those on the political left, while upholding widely accepted standards of journalism…
In a coffee shop in Evanston on Tuesday, Ms. Dai, 23, the student who had questioned Mr. Boyle’s photograph of her, said that she and other activists were trying to challenge journalistic norms and push for a more sensitive approach to reporting that considers the vulnerability of the people whose lives are portrayed.
“We weren’t there to get in the newspaper,” she said of the protest at the Sessions event. “We weren’t there to get national attention. People still hold dear that their journalistic duty is the most important thing, and that’s not the case.”
This attitude coming from campus protesters shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone. Left wing students, many of whom already believe there is a hate speech exception to freedom of speech, have now discovered grounds to object to freedom of the press as well. One of the protesters who criticized a photographer for publishing a photo of her did accuse him of creating “trauma porn.”
Colin please can we stop this trauma porn. I was on the ground being shoved and pushed hard by the police. You don’t have to intervene but you also didn’t have to put a camera in front of me top down. As a fellow photographer i know how this works&20 other ways to document this https://t.co/l2u186vjK6
— ying (@yingdaii) November 6, 2019
The student who took the photo deleted it and then the paper later apologized for the coverage. But it shouldn’t be hard to see what is going on here. Leftist protesters are trying to establish the same veto power over the press that they already think they deserve to have over speakers on campus. In both cases, the claim being made is that failure to side with the left is equivalent to an intent to do harm. The Times’ story notes that a similar situation is taking place at Harvard. The student government voted to condemn the college paper for asking ICE to comment on a student protest:
While The Crimson’s top editors have stood their ground, Act on a Dream and others have posted an online petition demanding that the paper apologize for “the harm they inflicted on the undocumented community” and that it change its policies. The groups have said they will boycott The Crimson by declining any interview requests until the paper changes its practices.
Again, the principle isn’t hard to grasp because it’s the same one the far left has been pushing on campus regarding speech. You either agree with them or you get shouted down as racist for speaking or in this case publishing something they don’t like.
All of this is presented in a fairly neutral fashion by the authors of the piece. Despite the hanging headline, they don’t seem to take sides between the far left voices and those standing up for journalism. That’s a bit disappointing since you’d expect journalists at a major paper to recognize there is a right answer here. But that may be giving the authors of the piece too much credit. One of them suggested on Twitter that the protesters may have a point: “I might have gasped in horror when I first read the Daily Northwestern’s statement of apology for its reporting. Now I know that the situation was way more complicated than it first appeared.”
From one student: “We can still be serious student journalists, but still have more empathy,” she said. “I think the question of empathetic journalism is, at least for us on the inside, what’s at the heart of it.”
— Julie Bosman (@juliebosman) November 13, 2019
Is it complicated? No, sorry, but I think your first reaction was the correct one. The paper’s apology was horrifying and the fact that students at a leading journalism school don’t know that is (pun intended) bad news. It’s fine to report various perspectives, but in this case there’s no mystery which perspectives have a handle on journalism, freedom of the press, and the First Amendment and which do not.