Northwestern student newspaper apology unwarranted

Kris Long, Opinions Editor

The Daily, Northwestern University’s student run newspaper, has faced backlash in the wake of the controversy involving their coverage of a student protest against a speech given by former Attorney General Jeff Sessions. The paper covered students who violently protested the speech by breaking into the back door of the building in which it was held. Student photographer Charlie Boyle took and published pictures of students protesting that showed their faces, The Daily also wrote and published a story that included the names of student sources who had agreed to be interviewed by the reporter. 

The backlash started with Northwestern’s student population denouncing the paper for potentially causing students to be expelled or receive disciplinary action from the university. Students were also annoyed the paper had used the student directory to find their phone numbers as they felt their privacy had been infringed upon. The Daily responded by issuing an editorial apologizing for their actions and promising to do better. It was after the apology was issued that the real backlash began as they received heavy criticism from professional journalists for apologizing for doing their jobs. In response to this criticism they apologized for apologizing and attempted to explain their actions. 

It is the opinion of The Mentor, as students of journalistic ethics ourselves, editorial board that The Daily was within their rights to publish the names and faces of student protesters and thus the apology was unwarranted. 

First of all, the students were in a public area. It is legal, unless there are very specific circumstances, to take pictures of people in public areas as Boyle did. Anytime a person shows their face in public they consent to being photographed by the media, meaning there was nothing inherently wrong with posting the photographs on social media. 

Students who were interviewed about the protest also willingly gave their names to the press, meaning the press had the right to publish their names. If they didn’t want their names to be published, they shouldn’t have given their names to the press. It’s as simple as that.

However, it is the responsibility of journalists to make it clear that sources’ names will be used and that there is an option of being unnamed in potentially damaging situations such as this one. 

A lot of this comes down to people needing to better understand press rights. If Northwestern students understood the legal rights of the press, they would have understood their complaints were unjustifiable. Now more than ever, people should know and respect the legalities of the press. This could be achieved by requiring students to take a high school course on media literacy.

Another complaint of students was that journalists used the student directory to get their phone numbers, claiming this violated their privacy. The argument is irrational. Would you claim the person across the street violated their neighbor’s privacy by looking up their phone number in a phone book? Of course not. A phone directory is a public resource. Simply asking if students would be willing to be interviewed is not violating their privacy. 

The point of a political demonstration is to be noticed, to have voices heard. It was undoubtedly brave of students to knowingly break the law to stand up for what they believe in. By that logic, having the press present actually helped students in their endeavor to speak out. If they were willing to risk arrest and expulsion for breaking into a building, then why is talking to a reporter and having their names cited such a line to cross?  The students doing something illegal will be the cause of any disciplinary action taken against them, not them being covered by the student paper.

The responsibility of the media is to tell a story in an unbiased, objective and empathetic way. The story that needed to be told in this case was that students broke into a building to express their disdain for Jeff Sesion’s ideas. Not telling it how it is would be a disservice to people who rely on accurate information to formulate their opinions.

It’s not the media’s responsibility to protect students from being punished for participating in an illegal act in public by not publishing their names or faces. 

The media cannot back down in the face of ignorant criticism and to apologize for simply doing their jobs was a mistake that all student journalists can learn from. It is the publics’ responsibility to educate themselves on and respect press law so controversies like these cease to exist.