Opinion: Let student journalists make mistakes

Responses to The Daily Northwestern’s apology fail to acknowledge realities of students today

Opinion: Let student journalists make mistakes
Lauren Patetta is a staff columnist for The Eagle

Northwestern University’s student newspaper, The Daily Northwestern, recently published a piece apologizing for their stories of recent protests regarding former Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ visit to campus. Their coverage, specifically of the student protesters, drew criticism, and The Daily apologized for doing otherwise typical journalistic tasks — specifically, posting pictures of the protest and contacting students for comment using a directory. 

This was, clearly, a mistake. Journalists should never have to apologize for basic news gathering. But, naturally, once Twitter discovered the apology, a complete social media firestorm began.  

Journalists from various agencies and different levels of experience started piling onto The Daily. Some of the comments bordered on rude, with people commenting on how “appalled” they were by the apology. Others were more well-intentioned, but a bit harsh nonetheless. Journalists tweeted things like they want to give students a lesson on the First Amendment, or they couldn’t believe the paper had been allowed to issue an apology, or they were offended by the attack this was on journalistic freedom. 

To which I respond: please, calm down. 

Student journalists should definitely not apologize for doing the daily work of a reporter. Calling people who may not want to be called, covering different parts of an event — these are all basic aspects of being a journalist. But they also should not be crucified on Twitter by well-established journalists who have likely forgotten the realities of learning and working as a student reporter. If anything, that should be the main takeaway: student journalists are students who are navigating this industry for the first time, and would benefit more from advice than condemnation. 

I understood the vast majority of the criticisms and I even agreed with a large part of them. Assailants of journalism as a whole would love to silence stories by inhibiting the news gathering process, so this could set a harmful precedent. But many criticisms failed to acknowledge the realities of being a student journalist. Writing for student media is not our job. We are not getting paid to report campus news. We’re doing this for experience, and we’re balancing it with coursework, jobs, internships and learning how to be adults. 

It’s important to mention that some information about The Daily’s reporting is simply not available to us yet. Two of the students covering the Northwestern event were freshmen. As a first semester freshman, I was in one communications class, and it wasn’t even journalism-focused. I didn’t have the same knowledge of journalism law and ethics that I do now, as a junior who has substantially more of these classes under my belt. 

Student reporters face pressure, not just from the organization they work for, but also from faculty, administration and other students. Universities make it hard to cover certain topics, the students we have to cover also share classes with us and faculty want their own opinions expressed in pieces. Essentially, it’s just one more difficulty on top of all the other difficulties college students face. Just because it’s rewarding doesn’t mean it’s easy, and it doesn’t mean that student reporters won’t make mistakes. But the point is, that’s an integral part of education. 

It also needs to be acknowledged that the Northwestern students were trying to find a way to handle an issue that the journalism industry as a whole has failed to deal with. Their apology was a response to criticisms regarding the ways, both in the past and present, the paper covered students of color. This is far from a Northwestern-specific problem; it’s ingrained within the entire journalism industry. 

Marginalized voices have often criticized the way journalists cover them and their stories, and The Daily was simply trying to respond to those criticisms in a way that they felt was appropriate. They did not go about it in the right way, but since the industry has so far failed to lead by example, they deserve some credit for at least attempting to address an issue that defines so much of journalism today. 

For many of us, this is our first contact with the world of reporting. We’re going to make mistakes, so rather than bash us on Twitter, I ask that you help us learn from them. 

Lauren Patetta is a junior in the School of Communication and an assistant editor for the opinion section. 

lpatetta@theeagleonline.com

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