EDITOR’S NOTEBOOK: Sympathy for Medill

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The chatter among journalists this week concerns one of the country’s Top 5 J-schools, Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University in Chicago, its student-run news organization the Daily and the manner in which it covered a protest against an appearance by former Attorney General Jeff Sessions.

At issue is an apology issued by the editorial staff after the fact, outlining the mistakes they felt were made in the coverage and a list of actions they undertook to remedy them.

They removed photos of the protesters after some complained that the photos felt “retraumatizing and invasive.” They said they regretted looking up students in the school directory to contact them for comment, and they removed from the story the name of a student they quoted to protect him from reprisal by the university.

To this, the professional journalism community responded more or less with one voice: No!

No!

These things for which the Daily editorial board apologized are the very stuff of the business: truth, accountability, attribution, the asking of uncomfortable questions to people who might not want to answer them. 

Everything else, as they say, is just PR.

It’s tempting to unload on these kids — who, to be fair, were having the right conversations but ended up on the wrong side of the thing. I know I was tempted. That’s the point from which I started writing this column.

But then I remembered a couple incidents from my own college-newspaper days, two massive mistakes in particular — one a matter of attribution, the other an act born of laziness and malformed ego — that might have gotten me fired had they happened in a professional setting.

The former was pointed out to me, graciously and even sympathetically, by a Times-Picayune reporter via a phone call to the newsroom.

“You could actually get sued for this,” he told me. I have never forgotten the lesson.

Point is: Students are allowed to — even supposed to — make mistakes, as long as they recognize that they’re mistakes.

I think the Medill students have gotten theirs: Journalists don’t hide the identities of the people they’re writing about. That’s kind of the whole point of the thing.

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