Lessons from the Daily Northwestern: good journalists exercise empathy while covering the full story

Earlier this November, the Daily Northwestern, a student newspaper in Illinois, issued an apology in response to public outrage regarding a recent article of theirs that covered a protest on their school campus. The protest was held in response to an event the Northwestern College Republicans were hosting, during which former Attorney General Jeff Sessions was asked to speak. The article explains that the protestors, numbering around 150, were met with police resistance, with several protestors alleging that they were tackled by police when they attempted to enter the lecture hall Sessions was speaking in. 

The protestors were upset with the way the Daily Northwestern covered the event, citing the sharing of pictures taken at the protests on social media and the use of the college directory to contact protestors for interviews as an invasion of their privacy. Unfortunately, said backlash and the paper’s resulting apology may have done more harm than good. 

The Daily Northwestern should not have apologized for covering the protests. The frustrations protestors expressed upon seeing their photos posted online are valid — the violence perpetrated against them by the police was surely traumatic — but the student paper has an obligation to cover events happening on campus, and the police response to the protests made said coverage all the more important. The police must be held accountable. It would have been unprofessional for reporters not to provide all of the facts because any protest without proper media coverage is an empty gesture once everyone has gone home.

Shortly after the apology was published, Troy Closson, the Northwestern Daily’s editor-in-chief, took to Twitter to elaborate on the staff’s decision to post the apology, explaining that the reporters at the Daily Northwestern understand their rights and obligations as journalists, but they also understand the importance of empathy when covering these events. While empathy is incredibly important, it should never completely supersede accuracy and honesty. Above all else, a journalist must be accurate, and that means reporting the full story, with appropriate quotes and pictures. The media is constantly being called out for spreading fake news as of late, and oftentimes those complaints are justified. Proper journalism relies on reporters covering every facet of the event.

In their attempts to convey this sense of empathy, the Daily Northwestern may have only worsened their situation. Regrettably, photos that included the faces of student protestors were removed from the paper’s Twitter page, pacifying those upset by their posting, but also erasing important coverage of an event that involved police mistreating students. While it is understandable that protestors would wish to remain anonymous, protests are public events, and those participating should understand the risks they are undertaking when they join in. 

It is a photo journalist’s job to capture the emotions of these events, and any seasoned photographer in the field will stress the importance of capturing the faces in the crowd. Faces help establish the emotional connection between the reader and the protestor. There are numerous examples throughout history of causes gaining momentum because of iconic shots of protestors, with the recent media coverage of the Hong Kong protestors being the most current example. It would be all too easy for the rest of the world to forget the plight of those protesting, but photographs of people desperately fighting for their rights possess an energy that resonates with others, and protest coverage persists to this day. 

Truth be told, the pictures taken by photo journalists should be the least of their worries. The reporters who attend these protests have good intentions — they want to give the protestors a platform to express their views, but there are many others in the crowd who have the same ability to take photos of the event and post them on social media. 

If a person is in a public space, they run the risk of being photographed. It is impossible to police everyone. It would seem that the protestors involved in the event the Daily Northwestern covered aren’t aware of the veritable paper trail their decision to attend the protest in the first place created. The article published by the Daily Northwestern explains that over 200 people RSVP’d on Facebook for the protest, which allows anyone interested in collecting a list of protestors an easy way to do so. 

Journalists can do their part by letting event coordinators know that they’ll be covering particularly controversial events. Forewarning should allow anybody uncomfortable with being quoted and photographed during the event the chance to avoid the press. The clear use of press passes to increase visibility during events might also help others stay out of the photographer’s line of sight. At the end of the day, however, it is an individual’s responsibility to educate themselves on the risks they take when they attend these protests.

Those who want to support a cause but don’t want to expose themselves have other options other than protest. Passionate individuals can sign petitions, donate to the cause and volunteer behind the scenes without risking their anonymity. Still, supporting a cause often comes with great risk, and those who wish to be part of the movement must accept that risk. 

People will be mad if journalists fail to cover their events, and they will be mad if journalists do cover the events. This is inevitable. Journalists must be empathetic when providing the coverage, but they must be sure not to sacrifice accuracy as a result because, above all, it is the media’s job to hold the world accountable, and it is impossible to do so without accuracy.

 

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