Journalists often interact with people who are having one of their worst days. Whether their loved one has been in a car crash or gotten arrested or their house or business has burned down — a reporter may be there to ask about it as it happens or very soon after.
It feels invasive. I’ve worked with a lot of reporters over the years, and I’ve never met one who likes calling the family of someone who just tragically lost a loved one. But a journalist’s job is to tell the stories of our community — what happens here, who it affects and how.
Countless times I’ve told reporters to make that call, advising that if that person doesn’t want to talk, we respect their wishes. But we give them the option to talk because it’s their story, and while we have a duty to report it, we want to report all the sides we can.
Student journalists at Northwestern University in Illinois earlier this month covered a protest of a campus visit by Jeff Sessions. They took photos of those attending and reached out to students using a campus directory; those students felt that was invasive.
The campus newspaper later apologized in an editorial stating, among other things, that students’ safety was more important than the newspapers’ coverage. Professional journalists across the country reacted strongly.
The Chicago Tribune’s editorial board responded: “To be frank, that’s not journalism. That’s the language of campus coddling. It’s prevalent at too many colleges, where professors provide ‘trigger warnings’ before addressing tough topics and administrators avoid having divisive — read: conservative — speakers on campus.”
National columnists like Robin Abcarian, whose column published in Saturday’s Times, responded as well. She wrote: “If a reporter contacts someone to ask if they’d like to be interviewed, said person can agree or decline. This is the free press in action, folks. No one has invaded anyone’s privacy.”
Journalists across Twitter reacted, like ESPN’s Kevin Van Valkenburg who said he didn’t want to “dunk on the Northwestern J-students, in part because I think we need journalists now more than ever,” before recounting a story of reaching out to the mother of a teen who committed suicide in a public space. That mother was in turn grateful to be able to tell her story.
Journalism can be a very messy business. We must ask ourselves tough questions about when to cover stories and how, and then live with the community’s reactions to those decisions.
In the case of the Northwestern student paper, it seems their editorial board caved to outside pressure and apologized for journalists doing their jobs.
Now they’re living with the journalism community’s reactions on top of those of the student community. The student community wants the newspaper to back off and the journalism community wants the newspaper to stand up.
When I was in J-school, I remember discussing in either a media law or media ethics class a quote from Benjamin Franklin: “Those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.”
While students may feel safer without a newspaper covering their protest, barring the press from covering public events, reaching out to obtain various sides of the story and photographing what happened leads to further distrust between political movements and individuals. While sloppy media reports can exacerbate those divisions, having less access would only worsen that problem.
A newspaper, student newspapers included, must be allowed to report on events and issues of public concern — freedom of the press is written into our Constitution after all.
Journalists should exercise their rights with empathy, but community members should recognize those rights and support media who are working to hold public officials accountable, providing accurate reports of events and otherwise seeking to uphold the freedoms upon which our country is built. The upcoming generation seems more concerned with feeling safe than being free. And that may be the most concerning point in all of this.