Northwestern University is home to one of, if not the most, prestigious schools of journalism in the country, and yet, their student newspaper, The Daily Northwestern, made an error. In reporting on a student protest, the student paper published photos of protesters and used the school’s directory to contact protesters for comment via their phone numbers. The student body reacted negatively, and in response, The Daily Northwestern took down the photos and removed the name of a student from one of the quotes in its news article. They went on to write an editorial where they explained their decision to modify the article, but ultimately over-corrected and created a much, much larger issue. Professional journalists were quick to bash the editorial board for what they perceived as an egregious decision that runs counter to journalistic integrity. So, did The Daily Northwestern misstep?
In short: Yes, they did make a mistake. But the context of their error should not be summarized into a single word. The Temple News wrote an editorial that aptly responded to The Daily Northwestern’s mistake by pointing out that they should have stood by their work, but that it was clearly a difficult decision to make. Pipe Dream’s Editorial Board agrees with the Temple News, but it’s worth noting what The Daily Northwestern’s dilemma means for our own position as student journalists.
Troy Closson, editor-in-chief of The Daily Northwestern, posted a Twitter thread where he acknowledged some of the backlash that he and the paper had received for their editorial. Although it doesn’t undo the harm done by their mistake, it serves as a reminder as to how difficult it can really be to manage a student-run paper — something members of Pipe Dream’s Editorial Board are all too familiar with. Tough calls must be made frequently and often on short notice, and The Daily Northwestern is not the only place where such a conflict can take place. There are hundreds of student newsrooms across the world that must balance their role as students and as journalists, and they won’t succeed every time. This will not be the last mistake that student journalists at The Daily Northwestern make — and that’s okay.
Additionally, while it may have been a bad decision to not stand by journalistic standards, it wasn’t an unethical choice. The staff at The Daily Northwestern was thinking of covering marginalized communities accurately and ethically, an issue that many professional newsrooms grapple with. This dialogue is important, and often missing in many newsrooms. In many ways, student journalists are also more intimately intertwined with their communities. After all, the editors and reporters at The Daily Northwestern still have to go to class with protesters who feel betrayed.
Ultimately, backing away from their original work meant The Daily Northwestern missed a chance to better explain the procedures that define how journalism works to students who may not know it as well as they do. Still, their editorial brought up valid points about the way student newsrooms and professional media outlets approach coverage, particularly of people of color. It’s clear there is still work to be done at The Daily Northwestern, just like there is work to be done at Pipe Dream. Perhaps The Daily Northwestern can work to better communicate with their communities and increase diversity on their own staff to tackle these issues, especially since Closson noted in a response to the controversy that he is just the third black editor-in-chief of The Daily Northwestern in its 138-year history.
This analysis of the reasoning behind The Daily Northwestern’s editorial makes the response to it from professional journalists especially disappointing. Those who chose to admonish the staff of The Daily Northwestern made the wrong decision, and should be ashamed. Many of these respected journalists began their own careers in a time long before social media carried the court of public opinion, and the challenges that student journalists face now are not the same ones that these journalists faced when they too had to make tough calls. Likely, they made mistakes doing so, but nobody was waiting on Twitter to tear them down. Furthermore, The Daily Northwestern is attempting to tackle deeper issues in the media industry that many professional newsrooms are skirting, and their efforts to do so, whether journalistically correct or not, should be met with guidance, not vitriol from people they likely look up to.
Pipe Dream’s Editorial Board feels that this a prime opportunity to reflect on our role as student journalists and as a voice for the student body. We may be an independent student-run paper just like The Daily Northwestern, but we don’t have access to a school of journalism full of professors and alumni who we can call on to help us make the decisions that we do. Instead, our paper is grounds for any level of experience to come and learn together through continuous trial and error. Although we strive to do good for the community we seek to represent and will always stick to our journalistic values, we’ll occasionally miss the mark. When that happens, we hope to foster trust and respect through a dialogue with our readers so that we can continue to grow not only the paper, but ourselves as student journalists. After all, student journalists are still students — and we’re still learning.