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Markkula Center for Applied Ethics

Point-Counterpoint: Should The Daily Northwestern have apologized?

Don Heider & Anita Varma

AP Photo/Dan Anderson

College newspaper The Daily Northwestern attracted a firestorm of attention, critiques, and accolades this week after apologizing for publishing recognizable photos of students protesting Jeff Sessions' visit to Northwestern University, and for soliciting interviews using a Northwestern directory. Below, we offer two ethical perspectives on whether The Daily Northwestern should have apologized, and what the apology means in the broader context of journalistic practice.

Point: The Daily Northwestern should not be criticized for doing journalism, which makes their apology unnecessary. 

Don Heider is the executive director of the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics. Views are his own.

  1. Taking photographs of people protesting on public property is what journalists do. When students decided to protest in a public place, they had an understanding of their actions, thus to simply document those actions and publish is well within a journalist’s ethical responsibility in telling a story truthfully.  To take a photograph of people participating in a bona fide news event is not a violation of someone’s personal space.

  2. Contacting potential sources for a story is what journalists do each and every day. Student journalists using a student directory to find and contact other students also raises no ethical issue, as far as I am concerned. As far as we know, the students contacted were not coerced or bullied by the student journalists.  Students who did not want to be interviewed could simply say no or not respond.  Furthermore, in a story like this I think there is an ethical duty to get the protestors’ voice and perspective into the story.  To only report the administration’s perspective would be incomplete reporting.  Letting the subjects of the story tell, in their own words, what they did and why they did it is good journalism.

  3. Student journalists are often condemned by their peers for their actions. These condemnations, I would argue, often come from students who do not have a full understanding or appreciation of the role of a free press.  Journalism is currently under attack from a number of quarters.  But what these student journalists did was not fabricate news, they simply told the story as best they could.  I would say instead of writing an editorial apologizing for their newspaper’s actions, the space would have been better spent carefully explaining the role of a student press on campus.

Counterpoint: The Daily Northwestern apology is an important example of journalists grappling with their responsibility to vulnerable sources.

Anita Varma is the assistant director of Journalism and Media Ethics, as well as Social Sector Ethics. Views are her own.

  1. Journalists have an ethical obligation to protect vulnerable sources. In the current political climate, both domestically and globally, protestors have sound reasons to fear retaliation if they are personally identified. Particularly in an era when people’s faces can be easily matched to their social media profiles, there are precedents for why a young protestor may be fearful of future targeted surveillance if identified as challenging the status quo.  

  2. Although it is the job of journalists to solicit interviews from relevant people, Dean Charles Whitaker’s statement indicates that there may be solid grounds for protestors to be unhappy with how they were approached: “Some have also charged that our students are rude and insensitive interrogators. They say our students behave like boorish voyeurs when approaching students from marginalized communities.” He goes on to note that he and his NU colleagues seek to better prepare student journalists to identify themselves as journalists before asking questions, and to urge student journalists to treat everyone with dignity and respect.

  3. American journalism has regularly sidelined protestors’ perspectives and demands in favor of frames that emphasize how protests disturb the peace or interrupt daily events. Student journalists and full-time journalists should publicly reflect upon these legacies and incorporate considerations of historical damages wrought by past generations of journalists that remain salient today.

Discussions about the ethical implications of The Daily Northwestern's apology are ongoing. Share your thoughts @jmethics on Twitter.

This piece was updated on November 13, 2019.

Nov 12, 2019

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