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Northwestern paper hints at future of journalism

| Monday, November 18, 2019

On Nov. 5, former Attorney General Jeff Sessions spoke at Northwestern University. As you can imagine, a large group of students came out to protest the man who had been appointed and eventually removed from his position by Donald Trump. The student-run newspaper, The Daily Northwestern, sent one reporter to cover the speech, another to cover the protests and a photographer to document the whole thing. Five days after publishing articles and posting photographs to social media, the Daily removed several images of student protesters from social media and stripped from an article the name of a quoted protester. The Daily then released an editorial in which the heads of the paper apologized for their coverage of the events.

The problem is that they did nothing wrong.

The purpose of journalism is to report the truth, and that’s exactly what the Daily did. The quotes published were the true reactions and testimonies given by the people they were accredited to. The pictures shared were unedited and they included the people there — protesting in public — and the events that transpired. Who can accuse journalists reporting the truth to be at fault?

The editorial board defended their content removal: “Any information The Daily provides about the protest can be used against the participating students. … We did not want to play a role in any disciplinary action that could be taken by the University.” Yet, by the intentional removal of evidence, the Daily did play a role in Northwestern’s disciplinary action. If the students quoted and photographed broke Northwestern’s rules, they’re liable to disciplinary action from the university. Imagine if the New York Times possessed evidence against a controversial prominent figure such as President Trump but hid it because they did not want to “play a role in any disciplinary action.” It’s almost unthinkable. That’s how far away from reputable journalism the Daily was with this decision.

The only time uncovering the truth could possibly be questionable is when it is done in an unethical way. The Daily raised this possibility, saying that some reporters used Northwestern’s directory to contact students and ask them for an interview. “We recognize being contacted like this is an invasion of privacy,” read the editorial. But contacting students through a directory is not an invasion of privacy; it’s good investigative journalism. Those students gave up the privacy of their phone numbers when they agreed to have them listed in the directory. Here at Notre Dame, while phone numbers are not listed, all students’ emails are available to the general student population through the online program, Search Notre Dame. Is a notification popping up on your phone any different if it’s listed as an email or a text? I say no. And I don’t know of any Notre Dame students getting upset about their contact information being available to their fellow students.

These student journalists from Northwestern represent the future of journalism in our country. Maybe their actions are correct. Before the digital age, if you were quoted or photographed in the newspaper, chances are no one would see it after a day or two. But in today’s age everything is permanent. A quick Google search can bring up staggering amounts of personal posts and data. And with facial recognition progressing terrifyingly fast, it’s likely that in the near future all photos published on any form of media will be easily linked back to you. It’s possible that journalists have a greater responsibility to protect those featured in their material.

However, the purpose of a newspaper is not to protect its readers, subject matter or anyone else. The purpose of journalism is printed on the Observer every day, “To Uncover the Truth and Report it Accurately.” The editorial staff of The Northwestern Daily took a huge misstep when they decided to forgo their role as journalists by hiding the truth in order to shield their fellow students from disciplinary action.

G. Matthew Molinsky


Nov. 14

The views expressed in this Letter to the Editor are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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