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Wednesday, 13 November 2019

Northwestern journalism school dean rips 'naive' student protesters who complained college paper committed 'sin' of 'doing journalism'

In the wake of Northwestern University's prestigious student newspaper apologizing that its reporters posted "retraumatizing and invasive" photos of student protesters at former U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions' campus speech, the dean of the college's journalism school had quite a bit to say.


Charles Whitaker — who heads the renowned Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications at Northwestern — posted a lengthy statement Tuesday blasting complaining student protesters and telling professional journalists who criticized the Daily Northwestern to give the student journalists "a break."

What did the dean say?

Whitaker noted that the paper's coverage of the protest of Sessions's speech was "in no way beyond the bounds of fair, responsible journalism" and said he's "deeply troubled by the vicious bullying and badgering that the students responsible for that coverage have endured for the 'sin' of doing journalism."

He added that he was approached by "several student activists who were angered by the fact that they and their peers were depicted on the various platforms of The Daily engaged in the very public act of protesting the Sessions speech" — and then Whitaker blasted those protesters, saying it's "na├»ve, not to mention wrong-headed, to declare, as many of our student activists have, that The Daily staff and other student journalists had somehow violated the personal space of the protestors by reporting on the proceedings, which were conducted in the open and were designed, ostensibly, to garner attention."

More from Whitaker:
That Daily staffers and other students used social media to track down protestors for comment and to verify facts — another affront, according to The Daily's detractors — is, in my mind and the minds of my colleagues, the kind of industrious reporting and information-gathering that we expect from enterprising reporters. Our young reporters did not root through trash cans, trespass on private property or purloin personal documents. What they tried to do was ask questions and take pictures that they hoped would offer the most accurate account of this wrenching event — one in which the images captured by The Daily's photographers may provide the only evidence of what actually transpired in the interaction between students and campus police. [...]

But I patently reject the notion that our students have no right to report on communities other than those from which they hail, and I will never affirm that students who do not come from marginalized communities cannot understand or accurately convey the struggles of those populations. And, unlike our young charges at The Daily, who in a heartfelt, though not well-considered editorial, apologized for their work on the Sessions story, I absolutely will not apologize for encouraging our students to take on the much-needed and very difficult task of reporting on our life and times at Northwestern and beyond.
Whitaker noted that he understands "why The Daily editors felt the need to issue their mea culpa. They were beat into submission by the vitriol and relentless public shaming they have been subjected to since the Sessions stories appeared. I think it is a testament to their sensitivity and sense of community responsibility that they convinced themselves that an apology would affect a measure of community healing."

However, he didn't let the newspaper's staffers off the hook for their apology, either:
I might offer, however, that their well-intentioned gesture sends a chilling message about journalism and its role in society. 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. To be sure, journalism has often bowed to the whim and will of the rich and powerful, so some might argue that it is only fair that those who feel dispossessed and disenfranchised have their turn at calling the journalistic shots. But that is not the solution. We need more diversity among our student journalists (and in journalism writ large). We need more voices from different backgrounds in our newsrooms helping to provide perspective on our coverage. But regardless of their own identities, our student journalists must be allowed — and must have the courage — to cover our community freely and unfettered by harassment each time members of the community feel they have been wronged.
He concluded by offering to "have a dialogue" with student activists "about what journalism is and what you might expect when you hold a protest in a public setting." But he also cautioned them that "waging war on our students on social media —threatening them both physically and emotionally — is beyond the pale. Our community deserves a more civil level of discourse."

Whitaker also told the "swarm of alums and journalists" who condemned the Daily's apology to "give the young people a break."

"I know you feel that you were made of sterner stuff and would have the fortitude and courage of your conviction to fend off the campus critics," the dean added to the op-ed's critics. "But you are not living with them through this firestorm, facing the brutal onslaught of venom and hostility that has been directed their way on weaponized social media. Don't make judgments about them or their mettle until you've walked in their shoes. What they need at this moment is our support and the encouragement to stay the course."

Here's a clip of Whitaker in discussion with the New York Times' Maggie Haberman at the Medill School in July:

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