Give the Northwestern journalists a break — this is how college media works

November 12, 2019

Before I came to Poynter, I spent almost a decade in student media, so what’s happening this week at Northwestern doesn’t feel new. But it does offer an important reminder.

One day in 2012, I arrived at work to see a headline on the front page of the college newspaper I advised. It contained a sexually loaded (and arguably sexist) joke about a new strip club.

Instantly, I knew what the rest of my day and week held: a defense of my students’ right to publish and some hard private conversations about what we learned as a result of publication.

In my nine years as a college media professional — first as the adviser to an independent newsroom, then as a program director — the hardest part of my job was helping people outside my organization see the value of student errors.

I see this playing out right now at Northwestern University, one of the nation’s top journalism schools. Reporters for The Daily Northwestern, the independent student newspaper, covered a protest in public, tweeted images and attempted to reach protesters for comment.

Some students said they felt alarm about being photographed and the reporters’ interview methods. The paper apologized in an editorial for the way it covered the event.

“For doing your jobs?!” professional journalists wailed on Twitter and in story comments.

“For causing more harm!” their fellow students railed.

Should the students at The Daily Northwestern have bowed to pressure from their readers? Most journalists (without knowing the full circumstances) agree they should not have. If my students had asked, I would have advised them that they were well within their rights to publish photos of a protest in a public place like a college campus, and that attempting to reach sources was actually good journalism, not an invasion of privacy.

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.

As a former mentor to student journalists, I have been worried about the Daily staffers being on the receiving end of vitriol from professionals. I was heartened, then, by the responses to editor-in-chief Troy Closson’s explanatory tweet, in which journalists emerged to provide support, encouragement and even praise.

I was lucky enough to participate in a strong college media program where people older and wiser than me molded me into someone a reputable organization wanted to hire. Every time I messed up, I swore to learn from my mistakes and never repeat them. That’s the real value in college media, and hopefully that’s what the students at Northwestern will take from this experience.

Oh, and my former students who wrote that headline? They are now working newspaper and TV journalists and public relations experts — one is even a politician.

You can bet they remember that headline. And you can bet they learned from it.

Barbara Allen is the managing editor of poynter.org. She can be reached at ballen@poynter.org or on Twitter at @barbara_allen_

What mistakes did you make as an emerging journalist that helped shape you? Share them with us on Facebook, Twitter or email, and we’ll round them up on poynter.org.

I’ll go first: A dead fish floated up in the pond on campus, and we hastily identified it as a piranha. A zoologist on campus had to inform us it was actually a pacu.

Lessons learned: Ask an expert, don’t let your excitement cloud your judgment, and ask the hard questions, like why would an Amazon fish suddenly appear in the midwestern United States?

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  • One o the best pieces of advice I got for this business came from Isaac Asimov. When a buddy and I asked him what advice he would give young, aspiring writers, he said, “Get a thick skin.”