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Statement from Medill Dean Charles Whitaker

Whitaker shares statement on The Daily Northwestern's coverage of campus events

Statement from Medill Dean Charles Whitaker

"Journalists have a heady responsibility performing our role as the authors of the first rough draft of history, the term that the late Washington Post President and Publisher Philip L. Graham is credited with coining to describe our work. Journalists often put themselves at great risk not only to expose malfeasance, misfeasance and injustice, but also to hold a mirror up to society and reflect the maneuverings in our daily lives.

It is important work. Journalism—when executed fairly, accurately and independently —allows a society to see itself in all its splendor and strife. It often is our only chronicle of the people and events that shape and govern our existence. Conversely, when done poorly or unfairly, journalism can most certainly scar individuals and communities. Indeed, there is no shortage of instances in which journalists have parachuted into settings, particularly those occupied by vulnerable or marginalized people, and provided accounts that were devoid of any sense of cultural competency.

But let me be perfectly clear, the coverage by The Daily Northwestern of the protests stemming from the recent appearance on campus by former Attorney General Jeff Sessions was in no way beyond the bounds of fair, responsible journalism. The Daily Northwestern is an independent, student-run publication. As the dean of Medill, where many of these young journalists are trained, I am deeply troubled by the vicious bullying and badgering that the students responsible for that coverage have endured for the “sin” of doing journalism.

Like those student journalists, I, too, have been 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. I have explained to those activists that as Northwestern’s—and the city of Evanston’s—principal paper of record, The Daily had an obligation to capture the event, both for the benefit of its current audience as well as for posterity. I have also offered that it is naïve, 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.

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.

Some have also charged that our students are rude and insensitive interrogators. They say our students behave like boorish voyeurs when approaching students from marginalized communities. My colleagues and I are mindful of these accusations and are working with our students on their reporting techniques. We absolutely want them to introduce themselves as journalists before peppering subjects with a battery of questions. We want to make sure that they understand that private individuals have no obligation to speak with reporters. And we want them to treat everyone they approach—no matter what their race, ethnicity, sexual orientation or political persuasion—with dignity and respect.

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.

I understand 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 effect a measure of community healing.

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.

This has been a difficult time for the students studying journalism at Medill. They have been under attack for merely doing what we encourage journalists to do: ask questions and write stories that illuminate the Northwestern/Evanston experience for anyone who might be interested in our community. Have they made mistakes? Most assuredly. They are students learning the craft. But I firmly maintain that our students do not act with malice aforethought. By and large, they want to do the right thing and reflect the community accurately.

So to our student activists, I say let’s have a dialogue about what journalism is and what you might expect when you hold a protest in a public setting. Feel free to critique the coverage. That’s what The Daily’s opinion pages are for. Better yet, join the staff. The Daily is not and should not be the lone provenance of Medill students. I assure you, your input would be welcomed. But 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.

And to the swarm of alums and journalists who are outraged about The Daily editorial and have been equally rancorous in their condemnation of our students on social media, I say, 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. 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.

Journalism is under assault in a variety of spheres. But my hope is that we at Northwestern can model ways in which a community can promote freedom of the press while also demonstrating how we conduct healthy and respectful debate. I would be happy to do my part to facilitate that dialogue."

Charles Whitaker
Northwestern University
Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications