November 13, 2019

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Northwestern: Many takes and takeaways

Good Wednesday morning. This newsletter, the Poynter Report, is not just for journalists. It’s about the media and for people interested in the media. It’s a newsletter for everybody.

Today’s edition centers on a topic that exemplifies the intersection of the media and the public. So let me set it up:

Former U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions recently visited the campus of Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois. The student newspaper, The Daily Northwestern, covered Sessions’ visit as well as the protest of his visit.

What ended up being national news, particularly in the journalism world, was the paper writing an editorial apologizing for how it covered the protest. To boil it down, the editorial board apologized for tweeting photos of the protesters and using the school’s directory to contact students.

Okay, so that’s the basic setup. Now for the fallout.

A lesson learned

The student journalists at Northwestern got beat up pretty good on Tuesday. It was a brutal case of journalists eating their young. In rather harsh tones, critics ripped into the students for their apology, saying they had nothing to apologize for. (Examples can be found herehere, and here.)

Look, I get it — the student journalists should not have apologized for practicing journalism. The editorial certainly was not the crime of the century, but it also clearly was not a good moment for the students. Instead of taking a flamethrower to the journalism program at Northwestern, however, critics need to take a step back and try to understand what happened.

In a statement, Charles Whitaker, the dean of Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism, wrote:

“I understand why The Daily editors felt the need to issue their mea culpa. They were beat into submission by the vitriol and relentless public shaming they have been subjected to since the Sessions stories appeared. I think it is a testament to their sensitivity and sense of community responsibility that they convinced themselves that an apology would affect a measure of community healing.”

Whitaker admitted it was a “heartfelt, though not well-considered editorial.”

Of all the tweets, comments and pieces out there, nothing was more thoughtful than the commentary of managing editor Barbara Allen. As a former college journalism adviser, Allen didn’t pile on, but instead reminded us all that these are students and this can be a teaching moment.

Allen wrote:

“Northwestern students have learned in the toughest way possible what it’s really like to be a journalist: Sources are going to push you and make demands, more knowledgeable elders are going to tell you just how wrong you are, and it’s all going to play out in public.

“And this is exactly how it should be, because these experiences turn you into a good journalist.”

Veteran Washington Post journalist Dan Balz tweeted:

“College journalists are under new pressures. … Rather than jumping on the Northwestern student journalists, we all need to help explain to other students the basic practices and values of good journalism and why it matters.”

The bottom line

It was disappointing to see how viciously some journalists jumped on the students. I’ll admit that my first instinct when I saw this story late Monday night was to wag a finger at these “kids” and arrogantly tell them how real journalism works. Instead of rushing to judgment, I wanted to let the controversy simmer down for a day before reacting … and overreacting. I’m glad I did because, as my colleague (and the editor of this newsletter) Allen points out, this is the time when student journalists can learn the valuable lessons that journalism school and working on the school paper teach you.

Did the Northwestern journalists mess up? Yeah, a little. Will they be better journalists for it? I’m betting they will. And maybe along the way, the rest of us — protesters, journalists and the general public — can learn something, too: journalism is a tough job. Asking hard questions, tracking down sources and chasing stories can sometimes be messy. But it’s all absolutely necessary to cover the story.

Lost in all of this was that the paper actually covered the protest. That counts for something.

Make the call. Always.

Another strong (and constructive) commentary on the Northwestern situation came in the form of a Twitter thread from ESPN senior writer Kevin Van Valkenburg. His comments were about awkward and difficult times when reporters are asked to get comments from those who have gone through a horrible experience, such as the death of a child. Van Valkenburg found, as many in the media discover, that people often want to talk. They often want to be quoted, to give their point of view. They often want to share stories of their loved ones, as well as pass along a lesson that could be invaluable to others.

My own mea culpa

In addition to her piece about Northwestern University, Allen started an interesting thread on Twitter, asking journalists to recall their most formative mistakes as a young journalist.

We all have them — a wrong name, a wrong date, a misspelled word. Sometimes it’s worse than that. No one feels worse about a correction than the journalist who made the error. It literally ruins a day, if not longer. I wish I could say my worst correction happened when I was young, but it happened just a few years ago.

As a sports columnist at the Tampa Bay Times, I wrote a story about ESPN college basketball analyst Dick Vitale’s annual gala to raise money in the fight against pediatric cancer. I revisited how the gala came to be years earlier because of a little girl named Payton Wright, who died from cancer at the age of 5. The day the column ran in the paper, I got a voicemail from Vitale:

“Hey Tom, Dickie V here. Thanks so much for writing about my gala. Great job. I really appreciate it. … Hey, just one thing: that little girl’s name was Payton Wright. You called her Peyton Manning.”

I felt like throwing up.

And now to other media news today …

Looking back at the strong, silent type

In this Aug. 3, 1973, file photo, the Senate Watergate Committee hearings continue on Capitol Hill in Washington. (AP Photo/File)

What a cool idea. With the impeachment hearings set to hit the TV airways today, The New York Times’ James Poniewozik binge-watched some of the 1973 Nixon impeachment hearings. What stood out? The quiet, Poniewozik wrote.

“There are no flashy opening graphics, just a stately timpani over the text of a Senate resolution. There are no yammering newsroom panels, no countdown clocks, no hashtags. There’s just testimony in a hushed hearing room and two soft-spoken anchors at humdrum desks, trying to figure out what the president knew, when he knew it and whether democracy still worked.”

We don’t know how these televised hearings and surrounding coverage will play out, but you can count on one thing: it won’t be quiet.

Cherry poppies off on Fox News

Don Cherry is the “Hockey Night in Canada” analyst fired for criticizing, during an on-air segment Saturday, those he believed were immigrants for not wearing flowers to honor fallen soldiers. On Tuesday, he appeared on Tucker Carlson’s Fox News show. During his Saturday rant, Cherry referred to those not wearing poppies as “you people.”

“It’s the two words, ‘You people’ — and you know people are very sensitive like that — that got me,” Cherry told Carlson.

Cherry said if he had to do it over again, he would have said “everybody” should wear poppies instead of “you people.” He added, “The police are with me. The forces are with me. Everybody is with me, and the firefighters and the whole deal. But it doesn’t make any sense and I was brought in and I was told I was fired after 38 years. I stand by what I said and I still mean it.”

You can watch the interview here, including Carlson’s remarks that those who complained about Cherry’s remarks are “fascists.”


Try this for your weather coverage

A woman walking braces herself in the stiff wind and blowing snow off Lake Michigan in Chicago on Monday. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)

This is my favorite journalism thing right this minute.

Weather is a big story in the northern part of the country this week. Winter has arrived: lots of snow followed by cold temperatures. When it comes to weather coverage, TV has an advantage over other news outlets. It has the expensive equipment and something that no one else has: meteorologists.

But The Buffalo News does something smart that all daily newspapers can do. In the winter, it runs a regular feature called “What to Expect in the Next 36 Hours.” It’s exactly what it says it is and it’s incredibly useful to its readers — and it can be done by all papers all over the country when weather hits.

Speaking of mentoring younger journalists …

On Saturday, a young reporter from a TV station in Columbus, Georgia, was struggling with a taped wrap-up from the Alabama-LSU football game. Noticing the reporter have a rough go of it, ESPN reporter Marty Smith stepped in to offer some words of encouragement. And the whole thing was caught on tape.

Smith told WRBL’s Jack Patterson, “You wanna know the hardest part? The hardest part of our job is what you’re doing right now. The taped standup. Hate ’em. I hate ’em, man. Because if you’re live and you kind of mess up, whatever, you just keep on diggin’. This thing — you wanna be just perfect. I can’t stand ’em.”

After taking a photo with Patterson, Smith said, “Keep plowin’. You’re doing a good job.”

I don’t know Smith personally and never had any meaningful exchanges with him. However, I did cross paths with him a couple of times during my sportswriting days and can tell you that this story is not out of character for Smith. He’s one of the good guys.

Hot type

A few more stories than normal today, but all of these are well worth your time …

Have feedback or a tip? Email Poynter senior media writer Tom Jones at

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Tom Jones is Poynter’s senior media writer for He was previously part of the Tampa Bay Times family during three stints over some 30…
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  • Tom, please. They acted in a cowardly manner. It’s understandable. Courage is rare, and probably more rare in this business than in some others. That said, it should not be whitewashed as if it is OK.

    Your words:

    “Did the Northwestern journalists mess up? Yeah, a little. Will they be better journalists for it? I’m betting they will.”

    If this was “a little,” what would be “a lot?”