OPINION: College journalists need to prioritize students’ well-being

A blue spiral-bound notebook with the raindrop TSL logo on it.
Graphic by Anaga Srinivas

In recent months, two “scandals” have shaken the student journalism world. 

In September, The Harvard Crimson reached out to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement for comment on a story about a student-led Abolish ICE protest. 

Earlier this month, The Daily Northwestern reporters published photos of students protesting outside of a speech by former Attorney General Jeff Sessions on their Twitter accounts before taking them down.

Both newspapers received criticism from their respective student bodies for their coverage of the events — more than 1,000 people have signed an online petition condemning The Crimson for endangering undocumented students, and student activists voiced concern that the photos published by The Daily were traumatizing and invasive.

While The Crimson stood by its reporting, The Daily apologized and deleted the Twitter photos taken outside Sessions’ talk. The backlash was swift, as established journalists rushed to criticize the college students. They argued that The Daily was right in their initial reporting, students at a public protest should not expect privacy and the apology was essentially an act of censorship and a harbinger of the death of democracy, or something. 

The New York Times covered the story with the tongue-in-cheek headline: “The Daily Northwestern Apologizes to Student Protesters for Reporting.”

Then, backlash to the backlash followed, albeit less widespread and less emphatic. Other journalists, like Sharif Durhams at CNN, pointed out that, while The Daily journalists should not have apologized, the self-righteous reactions from full-grown adults was a little bit, well, over-the-top.

Honestly, I don’t really care about the specifics of what goes on at Harvard University or Northwestern University. Two student newspapers are not emblematic of the free press at large. However, the controversies have highlighted the murky ethical waters in which student newspapers swim. 

The fact is, student journalists are students; they don’t exist on a separate plane of pure objectivity. 

College newspapers are not the same as national publications, and they should not be treated as such. Student journalists are different from professional journalists because they are members of the community on which they are reporting. As a result, they have a unique moral responsibility to that community. 

While I understand the critiques of The Daily’s apology, it’s not alarmist or unreasonable to say that photographing the faces of student protesters has the potential to open up those students to harm. 

Additionally, it’s critical that student journalists build trust by engaging in an open dialogue with student activists — many students simply do not know that they are legally allowed to be photographed in public spaces without their knowledge or permission. Student journalists also need to think critically about what is necessary to tell a story and why that story is being told, rather than just report for the love of reporting, or worse, for a resume bullet. 

The internet has ushered in an age of hypervisibility, in which articles that were formerly contained to on-campus print newspapers now have the potential to be circulated far and wide. Take the Scripps pool party incident in 2018, in which the publication of a Claremont Independent article resulted in students, staff and faculty receiving “hostile and threatening” phone calls from strangers.

This shift in potential impact requires a shift in method. For example, WITNESS, an international nonprofit that has partnered with 570 organizations and trained over 11,350 people on how to ethically and strategically use video to document human rights violations, recommends the following: “Get a variety of shots to show protest activity and the size of the crowd. Anonymize protesters by filming feet, backs or with blurred focus … PAUSE and think strategically before sharing your video online. Always consider your own and others’ safety before sharing the video publicly.”

Let’s be clear: Being cognizant of the power and impact of one’s reporting is not akin to censorship.

Every piece of reporting is embedded with bias and context; there will always be editorial decisions on what is included, what is highlighted and what is left out.

The myth of journalistic objectivity tells us that isn’t so. It’s a beautifully enticing myth, this idea that there exists a body of purely neutral investigators, and that if we simply report both sides to every story, we can uphold truth and justice and democracy for all. But come on — that would be too easy.

As Ebenezer Mensah PO ’23 wrote in a TSL column last week, “While the idea of listening to every view and allowing every voice to be heard may sound appealing, the obsession with finding a balance in reportage and being objective is perhaps making journalists forgetful of their core mandate: the pursuit of basic truth.”

While requesting a comment from ICE might be considered “objective,” it doesn’t exactly make any progress in the pursuit of basic truth. In a message to The Crimson, Marion Davis, director of communications for the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition, wrote, “I know the Crimson acted on a desire for fairness, but I have learned [through] experience that getting both sides isn’t always what is fair, especially when one side has already made its views well known through the megaphones of government.”

Or consider last semester’s TSL piece, in which the spring 2019 editorial board proclaimed, “Today, we stand with The Claremont Independent” after Pitzer barred The Claremont Independent from attending the Pitzer College Council’s vote on suspending the University of Haifa program. While, sure, a free press is important, the editorial board’s argument failed to account for the ways in which The Claremont Independent has opened up students to harassment, such as the coverage of the previously mentioned Scripps pool party incident.

In this instance, the TSL editorial board chose to “stand with” their convoluted and abstract notion of objectivity rather than stand with the well-being of the students involved. (Later on, “and other news outlets” was added to the headline after learning others had been denied as well.)

Look, I get it. The president is demonizing the press, publications are folding left and right and student newspapers are chronically underfunded. In this climate, admitting nuance can feel like weakness. 

But I don’t think that student journalists being sensitive to the needs of the student body devalues on-campus journalism; in fact, it would bolster it by building trust between the press and the community. 

And let’s face it — right now, TSL could benefit from building some trust. 

Schuyler Mitchell PO ’20 is from Raleigh, North Carolina. She is a Media Studies major and English minor.

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