By Abby Wargo
In the fake news era, it is undeniable that the media landscape is changing. As a result, student journalists are caught in the crossfire.
Take an example from a few weeks ago, when Northwestern University’s student newspaper, The Daily Northwestern, issued an apology for publishing photos of protestors at an on-campus lecture by Jeff Sessions after students accused the paper of being insensitive in their coverage of the event.
According to the Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics ethical journalists should “balance the public’s need for information against potential harm or discomfort. Pursuit of the news is not a license for arrogance or undue intrusiveness.”
The code also champions seeking out the truth. “Be vigilant and courageous about holding those with power accountable. Give voice to the voiceless,” it reads.
Journalism ethics do not always make sense to non-reporters. In the Introduction to Journalism course I took last fall, I remember my classmates were horrified at the idea of reporters witnessing atrocities and documenting them but not intervening in the situation.
Those reactions align with the students’ at Northwestern; Ying Dai, one of the student protestors that was photographed during the confrontation with police, tweeted at the photographer accusing him of publishing “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,” Dai wrote in a tweet Nov. 5.
In an article about the incident published in The New York Times on Nov. 14, Dai talked about her reasoning behind the tweet. She cited journalistic norms as insensitive and an invasion of privacy.
Dai said in the article, “We weren’t there to get in the newspaper. 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.”
The debate among journalists is focused on The Daily Northwestern’s decision to apologize for the incident, which they see as unnecessary. Charles Whitaker, the dean of Northwestern’s Medill journalism school, slammed the paper’s decision.
“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,” Whitaker wrote in a Nov. 12 statement. “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.”
As with all questions of ethics, there are many gray areas in the journalistic code. Situations should be considered on a case-by-case basis, and erring on the side of caution, as the editors at The Daily Northwestern chose to do, is not inherently a bad one. If keeping the photos up would further erode the public trust in the newspaper, then the removal was wise. Alternative methods of reporting on the story could suffice if necessary.
Both the lecture and the protests at Northwestern were public events, and participants should not have had an expectation of privacy during the event. However, the danger the protests posed caused some of the photographed subjects discomfort. As the editor-in-chief of The Elm, if this were my decision to make, it would be a tough one. My natural instinct would also be to issue an apology, as the intent of the coverage was not to harm. But at the same time, I would be reluctant to pull a story or photo as important as this one simply due to public disagreement.
Colin Boyle, the photojournalist who came under fire for his images of the Sessions protests, spoke about the decision to remove the photos and apologize on NPR’s “All Things Considered” Nov. 17.
“I’m here to tell stories and to inform our community and our audience. And I felt like I was doing just that. But I wasn’t being as transparent in my process at the moment. And looking back at it now, it’s caused for a lot of time a reflection of what our job is as journalists and our impact and the privilege that our job has, where we’re not as impacted by coverage, sometimes, versus those who we’re reporting on,” Boyle said.
I am not suggesting that journalists should be insensitive to these concerns while reporting, and I am also not saying that the student protestors didn’t have the right to revoke their consent to be photographed. In this highly politicized present, the ways we interact with and understand the world are changing. This includes journalists. But there is also some responsibility on non-journalists to understand that the task of journalism is to “ensure the free exchange of information that is accurate, fair and thorough,” to borrow from SPJ.
This is not a cut-and-dried issue, and similarly, neither is the solution. I don’t fault the Northwestern editors nor the protestors for their actions, and I see this as a pivotal moment in journalist-reader relations. Increased communication and a mutual understanding between a news outlet and its readership is essential everywhere, and the duty of a newspaper is to serve its community truthfully and fairly. In today’s world, perhaps that means institutional standards will change to reflect that. But at the same time, we need to be cautious of encroaching on the press’s ability to freely report on things: journalism, now more than ever, is necessary to hold institutions accountable for their actions, and the world would be a darker place without it.