The Kids Are All Right: In defense of The Daily Northwestern staff and its apologetic editorial

Before we start this post, does anyone else want to take a shot at the staff of The Daily Northwestern?

In case you’re not sure about hopping on the bandwagon, but you really like piling on, here’s a brief recap of the controversy surrounding the students in Evanston: Jeff Sessions (for reasons past my understanding) spoke on the Northwestern campus about the “The Real Meaning of the Trump Agenda” last week and was met by protests. As one of the protests got rowdy, two journalists from the DN began doing journalism: Taking photos, interviewing people and so forth. The coverage ran across multiple platforms and showcased what happened.

Shortly thereafter, the student activists admonished the paper for running photos and calling sources (y’know, journalism stuff) because they feared the administration might punish them for their actions and the DN made it easier for the admin to find these folks. In response, the paper ran an editorial, signed by EIC Troy Closson and other members of the paper’s masthead, apologizing for covering the protest and creating “trauma” for the protestors:

One area of our reporting that harmed many students was our photo coverage of the event. Some protesters found photos posted to reporters’ Twitter accounts retraumatizing and invasive. Those photos have since been taken down.


Some students also voiced concern about the methods that Daily staffers used to reach out to them. Some of our staff members who were covering the event used Northwestern’s directory to obtain phone numbers for students beforehand and texted them to ask if they’d be willing to be interviewed. We recognize being contacted like this is an invasion of privacy, and we’ve spoken with those reporters — along with our entire staff — about the correct way to reach out to students for stories.

With all of that in mind, anyone else want to kick Closson in the groin on this one? Anybody else want to pony up with a “death knell of journalism” beef? Somebody in the cheap seats want to shit-talk Northwestern because of its rep as one of the best J-schools in the country?

In case you need inspiration, here are a few things that have come through my media feeds in the past 24 hours in response to the eddy:

Did someone hack into the newspapers site and post this as a joke? I am amazed that journalists would post this for real. I will wait to see if something is up before I comment further.

In honor of full disclosure, I asked the same question when this was posted in a Badger journalism alumni chat room. One of the perils of the internet is you get to be kind of a dick really quickly instead of having to wait for the printing press to go through its machinations.

This is ghastly. Where are they getting these ideas from?

Astonishment is fun, but it’s so much more fun when you can blame everything on a generational divide:

This feels like a Gen Z thing to me, an apology characteristic of an
o’er-sensitive generation that doesn’t want to offend anyone. It’s a
neo-manifestation of the “safe space” discussion that we’ve had.

What is happening to collegiate journalism, with Gen Z at the helm, if we are now seeing student journalists backpedaling and apologizing, for reporting on events that transpire within our campus communities and for seeking out the people that they photographed or quoted —- to ensure they got it right?! I honestly cannot believe the times we are in, if this is the new norm… overly sensitive to a FAULT! This is absolutely incredible!

Damned Kids

Veteran journalist and Chicago blogger Robert Feder collected some of the national Twitter outrage, including a couple of my favorites:

Richard A. Harrison:These idiots are literally apologizing for committing journalism. God help us all. . . . It just reflects the sorry state of today’s “journalism.” In fairness to these student journalists, it’s not much of a leap from sanitizing language for political correctness (see, e.g., AP Style Manual) to apologizing for hurting people’s feelings for no apparent reason.

John Aravosis: Dear God. Northwestern University’s student paper just disciplined student journalists for covering a protest of Jeff Sessions on campus. This editorial is a disgusting un-American betrayal of the tenets of journalism. Their sin: Covering a protest and asking for interviews.

Derrick Blakley:The Daily has got it seriously twisted. You don’t ask permission for those involved in news stories whether they want to be covered or not. The protesters decided on their own to disrupt a public event. If they wanted to protect their identities, not be photographed or interviewed, they could and should have stayed home. For the Daily to cowtow to such “grievences” is to flush the basic principles of journalism down the toilet. As a embarassed Medill grad, I now know what slogan The Daily should run under their masthead: “None Dare Call This Journalism.”

Truth be told, I didn’t like the editorial any more than anyone else. I thought that the approach Harvard took to a similar concern was a much better move, and I said so at the time. However, before we go any further on this, let’s layout a few unpleasant truths:

YOUR GENERATION SUCKED, TOO: I despise generational politics because it’s essentially punching down from a position of self-delusion. I often apply the Johnny Sain Theory of Old-Timers Day here: “The older these guys get, the better they used to be.” So, no, you would not have run this editorial back in your day, but I bet you screwed up in some equally stupid fashion.

I remember hearing rumors of my student newspaper running the headline “VICTORY!” when Saigon fell, as the paper’s staff had been radically anti-Vietnam. I thought THAT was pathologically stupid, as did many of the adults who criticized the paper at the time. The staffers who are now in their mid 60s or older still vacillate between defending the action as “brave” or doing the “You’re too young to understand. You had to be there.” excuse.

OK, well, if that’s the case, try being here in the now as well. Your screw-ups didn’t go viral in 26 seconds, thanks to social media. Your mistakes won’t be found on Google for generations, so every time someone wonders about you, that’s the first thing that pops up. (If we want to find out what stupid crap you did “back in the day,” we’ll need access to bound volumes of crusty newsprint and a respirator to deal with the dust.)

Each of our generations has had its own crosses to bear, and the only one we all seem to have in common is having to deal with people from the previous generation telling us how much better they were at everything than we are.

MISTAKES HAPPEN. FEAR MAKES THEM MULTIPLY: You learn more by screwing things up than by ever doing them right. I believe that and if conversations with former students are any indication, they believe that, too. This is why they never come to me with stories about how they got an A on a paper and that helped them in life. Instead, the tell me about how an error cost them serious points and they never forgot the lesson.

Mistakes happen and seeing what the results of those mistakes are can help you get better at stuff in the future. What doesn’t help is when you’re afraid of making another mistake.

What essentially happened here was that the paper did what it instinctively felt was right: cover the event. People screamed at them that they were wrong and they probably freaked out and got scared. This is normal human behavior. (Things like running toward a fire, asking what caliber gun blew someone’s head off and bothering folks at the scene of a fatal accident takes some practice.) So in their panic, they went the other way and tried to make things OK for THOSE people, succeeding in pissing off OTHER PEOPLE, who now feel they need to apologize to their readers, the alumni of the Almighty Deity School of Journalism and Awesomeness, anyone ever impacted by apologies and the entire field of journalism itself.

So, with all that in mind, I can only imagine how little impetus these students are going to have in ever covering anything ever again, other than local corn roasts and places where people get awards for saving puppies from a fire.

Being afraid sucks and it cuts into productivity. When all you’re thinking is, “Don’t screw up,” you’re not thinking, “Let’s do a good job.” If you put pressure on yourself not to screw up THIS ONE THING, you’ll likely dodge that mistake but make six other worse ones.

It’s best to think of screw ups like this like we do any other wound:

  • It’s going to hurt for a while. How much depends on the severity.
  • You can’t un-hurt yourself. You can only heal.
  • It’s harder for a wound to heal when it is constantly being picked at and reopened.
  • Eventually a scar forms and it reminds you of what happened so you don’t do it again.

BEING A DICK DOESN’T SOLVE ANYTHING: When was the last time someone was a total a-hole to you and it led to a positive result? I’m picking through my memories and I’m having a hard time coming up with a single instance of that in my own life. Even if the person was right, it usually took a long time for me to figure out the lesson associated with that person’s diatribe. Even more, I still usually didn’t take the lesson to heart and all I could remember thinking was: “Yeah, but what a dick…”

One year, we took a group of student journalists to cover a Minnesota Twins game at Target Field. The students were from various small programs and had limited experience covering anything close to this kind of thing. Still, the Twins gave them one-day, full-access press credentials and let them have at it.

The game was a crazy one and even the most veteran journalists were running around like their hair was on fire trying to get stuff done. One of our students was in a pack of reporters around a player, asking questions. The student did what he thought he should have done: Waited until everyone was done and then ask a question when the other reporters left. It turned out to be a faux pas, confusing the player and angering some of the other journalists. Some people did the “damned kids” thing or just rolled their eyes.

Pat Borzi, a journalist who covered decades of sports stuff including pro baseball and the Olympics, took a different tactic. He waited until both of them were off deadline, and in a mostly empty press box. He took the student to the side and explained what the kid did that was wrong and what he should have done. He did it in a stern but fair voice, journalist to journalist. He also talked to me and my fellow adviser about this so we could share it with our group. I greatly admired his approach and I consider him to be a role model for how social learning should happen in journalism.

Had Borzi ripped into the kid in the press box or came up to me and yelled about these damned kids and how they have no business in here, no one would have learned anything and I never would have appreciated his expertise and wisdom.

I would have just left thinking, “What a dick.”

That’s what I thought when I was reading through the Twitter posts, even those whose core ideas (don’t apologize for doing journalism, worry less about what other people think about etc.) I agreed with. And I’m not even the one getting shredded out there.

If you want people to get better at something, treating them poorly for failing to do it right is the least effective way to pull that off.


So, anyone else want to take one last shot at the paper? Last chance… OK.

Now I’ll shut up so you can listen to Closson, as he took to Twitter to talk about this. His thread brings up multiple points, some of which I agree with and others I don’t. However, his closing set does do exactly what I’d want to see out of a leader:


In other words, we’re doing the best we can, we are glad to hear what people say, but if you feel the need to punch down on someone, leave my staff alone and take your best shot at me.

I’d work for someone like that any day.



Leave a Reply