The editors of Northwestern University’s campus newspaper apologized profusely on Sunday for “retraumatizing” fellow students who already felt “violated” by Jeff Sessions’ recent visit.
In an editorial, the student journalists responded to backlash from their peers over how they covered protests of Sessions’ talk last Tuesday at the university in Evanston, Illinois. They said that by practicing basic journalism they had “hurt students that night, especially those who identify with marginalized groups.”
“Last week, The Daily was not the paper that Northwestern students deserve,” the editors wrote. “We recognize that we contributed to the harm students experienced, and we wanted to apologize for and address the mistakes that we made that night — along with how we plan to move forward.”
The editorial was widely derided by professional journalists Monday on Twitter.
The Stranger’s Katie Herzog mocked the essay as “the best satire of an obscenely woke college newspaper I’ve ever seen.”
“Kudos Daily Northwestern!” she joked in a thread. “You all deserve jobs at the Onion.”
— Katie Herzog (@kittypurrzog) November 12, 2019
However, others defended the editors, saying they deserved credit for being sensitive.
“I’m more shocked at how angry folks seem to be, because while I wouldn’t have made that choice, I don’t think it’s wild to think about how reporting can impact the people we write about and how to mitigate it,” Tracie Hunte, a reporter for WNYC’s Radiolab podcast, tweeted. “They’re trying something and maybe it didn’t work! It’s fine!”
Late Monday night, Troy Closson, The Daily’s editor in chief and a student at the university’s Medill School of Journalism, responded to the criticism in a series of tweets.
Closson said he appreciated the “concerns” that had been raised about the editorial and added: “We aren’t unclear about our rights as a newspaper to cover student protest, but also understand the need to do so with empathy.”
As one of The Daily’s few black editors in chief, Closson explained that he felt the need to balance the newspaper’s coverage with his “racial identity.”
What the Northwestern student newspaper apologized for
In the editorial, Closson and seven other editors listed a number of specific ways they felt their coverage of Sessions’ lecture was problematic in retrospect.
For one thing, they said they “could not be more sorry” for publishing images their photographer had taken of the protests.
“Some protesters found photos posted to reporters’ Twitter accounts retraumatizing and invasive. Those photos have since been taken down,” they said. “While our goal is to document history and spread information, nothing is more important than ensuring that our fellow students feel safe — and in situations like this, that they are benefitting from our coverage rather than being actively harmed by it. We failed to do that last week, and we could not be more sorry.”
The editors went on to apologize for using the student directory at Northwestern to text students for interview requests.
“We recognize being contacted like this is an invasion of privacy, and we’ve spoken with those reporters — along with our entire staff — about the correct way to reach out to students for stories,” they said.
Finally, the editors expressed regret for initially quoting a protester in their article. They said they had since removed the student’s name, citing fear of retribution by the university, from which the newspaper is independent.
“As a campus newspaper covering a student body that can be very easily and directly hurt by the University, we must operate differently than a professional publication in these circumstances,” they explained. “We know we hurt students that night, especially those who identify with marginalized groups.”
The editors assured readers they were “grappling with the impact of Tuesday’s events” and drawing up new policies in preparation for future “distressing experiences that arise on campus.” They said they hoped they could “rebuild the trust we weakened or lost last week.”
How Jeff Sessions triggered students
The editorial was just part of the emotional fallout from Sessions’ appearance, which was called “The Real Meaning of the Trump Agenda.” Sessions was hosted by the Northwestern University College Republicans. Two days, later he announced that he is running for his former Senate seat in Alabama.
According to The Daily, while Sessions was speaking, multiple protesters pounded on the auditorium door and shouted slogans like, “You are a racist; you put kids in cages.” Others climbed through windows and pushed their way into the lecture hall.
“I’m just going to tell you, this is stupid,” Sessions reportedly told the crowd. “You shouldn’t be blaming young Republicans for meticulously defending their beliefs and putting up with this kind of trash.”
A video of the protest posted to the Young America’s Foundation YouTube page Monday shows police clashing with protesters.
One young woman screams, “We are fighting for our lives right now! This is our lives, right now! And that man has violated every single one of us!”
Sessions served as President Donald Trump’s attorney general and helped implement a hardline immigration policy. Trump forced Sessions out a year ago.
Also Sunday, Harvard University’s student government voted to condemn its campus newspaper, The Crimson, for reaching out to Immigration and Customs Enforcement for comment on a story.
“We condemn actions or policies that endanger undocumented and immigrant students on campus, and we encourage the Harvard Crimson to revisit their policies and make adequate changes,” the council said in a statement published to Facebook Monday. “It is imperative for the Harvard Crimson to commit to journalistic practices that do not put students at risk.”