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Journalism failed the young editors and staffers at The Daily Northwestern–not the other way around

Too easy.

That’s how fast the anger and confusion came from those who reacted negatively to the apology offered recently by the editor and staffers of The Daily Northwestern for their coverage of former Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ campus appearance. But the extreme measure of removing well- and fairly sourced photos, removing a protester’s name in a vital act of attribution and apologizing for good hustle was not the malpractice we’d like to imagine. 

As Editor Troy Closson’s Twitter thread revealed, it was a cry for help. Not a sniveling, weak-kneed cry stakeholders would like to imagine but one of leadership and a call to action to know better and do better in an environment where the news media’s credibility and tactics are questioned and diminished daily.

The real malpractice will occur if we, who do this work and believe in the democratizing force of journalism, don’t listen to what these young journalists are trying to tell us about ourselves, our society. The real change that must occur falls on an industry that has largely failed to equip itself to navigate increasingly diverse environments because it maintains a terrible track record of writing and speaking across difference.  

More special coverage at GJR: Left poses historic challenge to campus free speech and press

The orthodoxy of objectivity teaches us to block out the noise: But this approach has been revealed for the scam it is — a white, male, privileged, Western default worldview that doesn’t center anyone who doesn’t fit. This matters because the stories we tell become the world we are.

“We cannot default to an assumption that journalism is a static and unyielding set of actions that shouldn’t be questioned,” tweeted Heather Bryant, director of Project Facet, a journalism collaborative. “Our work is to question everything, and that must include ourselves and our processes.”

This affair illustrates how audiences have come to regard journalists as an extractive force that is not truly interested in telling the full story of communities we serve. I’ve met many activists who view the Fourth Estate as a proxy for power more than a force for good and engagement with democratic ideals. The dangerous “no media, safe space” ethos runs so deeply certain communities can’t even fathom working with — or leveraging — the media, they are so sick of us. 

Journalist Madeline Faber offers food for thought: “I wonder if there are cases where we further an ethic of care by silencing our demand for knowledge and closure. What happens to journalism when we finally admit that inquiry can be invasive?”

Student protestors bang on the door outside the campus building where former Attorney General Jeff Sessions delivered a speech on Nov. 5 at Northwestern University. (Photo by Ignacio Calderon)

As managing editor of MLK50: Justice Through Journalism, our Memphis-based team focuses on the intersection of poverty, power and policy, and takes great pains to center the voices of people often rendered as chalk outlines — or not at all. When writing about the latest jobs numbers or corporate tax breaks, we’re prone to ask who is not included in the statistical breakdown, or how many of the jobs promised by corporate leaders will lead to middle-class jobs, not just any ol’ job? 

In this time of great inequality, the answers frequently reveal how power is the greatest beneficiary in any civic, economic or social enterprise. The fix is in, but so much coverage refuses to engage social science tools and validate personal experiences to tell the whole, real story, complete with historic through lines that render people in the complexity they deserve. 

With our fancy education, how many of us are even equipped to do so? Given the tendency to normalize the most horrific policies and practices of our society, likely not many. The news media, through uncritical tactics that fail to deeply consider fault lines, often functions as an amplifier for power, which is really a narrow sliver of our so-called audience.

More special coverage at GJR: What is lost if photos are pulled to save subject’s pain?

Unlike The Daily Northwestern students, how many of us ever stop to take stock of our assumptions and make space for ideas that may challenge our orthodoxy? I admit, I cringe when I hear how people in activist circles talk about the media. I can’t help but critique how wrong they get what we do and how we do it. But an expansive view would consider this a call for more news literacy because in all the confusion, audiences, even tender student-activists caught in the punishing swirl of social media and surveillance culture, are likely trying telling us we need to do better by them and the communities they represent. Though The Daily staff overreacted, this is what they were attempting. Failing to do good journalism like wisely using a student directory to make contact isn’t the answer but answer, we must. And perhaps the answer is more transparency: telling and showing how we got the story and how those decisions were made? 

We are all familiar with the image of a press scrum following a source up the courthouse steps, yelling questions and sticking microphones in their direction. It’s such a common motif, the imagery is frequently used in TV and movie dramas to move along plot lines. This is a mere performance aspect of getting the story. Increasingly, the best journalism — the kind that offers complex, authentic, contextual stories for everyone, according to University of Georgia’s Maria Len-Rios’ rubric for journalistic excellence, is the done with more deliberation over how journalists themselves show up as gatekeepers — and caretakers. Fortunately, journalism initiatives have surfaced to deal with extractive practices associated with reporting the news.

Just recently, Solutions Journalism Network, headed by David Bornstein and Tina Rosenberg of The New York Times Fixes blog, convened about 100 journalists in Utah. They’ve made complicating narratives, based on Amanda Ripley’s powerful essay, a priority by training journalists how to use conflict mediation techniques to peel back layers and get to the real motivations of people we cover. The goal is to show journalists how to ask deep questions and really listen, as if they care about more than clinching the quote or anecdote. Solutions Journalism itself seeks to implicate actors in their own narratives by showing what works in addressing social issues (local or beyond), how it works and highlighting the limits with insight and rigor.

Trabian Shorters, CEO of BMe Community, offers a powerful tool he calls “asset-framing,” which defines communities and people by their aspirations, not the worst thing about them or the terrible, bad thing we relish repeating. How this can work journalistically is by pulling our own coattails when we develop and pitch stories, write, shoot and film them, then package human narratives for display. 

So, when crafting a story about a marginalized community, we can pause and ask ourselves is this an “overcoming” trope? What is joy in this place? Is this a “fate” trope where we write about, say, gun violence in black and brown communities and frame the story as the inevitable result of “choice” without ever questioning the structures that provide the foundation and housing for these outcomes? Do we all have a “personal responsibility” trope in our back pockets, all worn and frayed from overuse from a lack of critical thought and inability to see the new and different in a people or an issue we’ve been staring at a long, long time?

Both Listening Post and Press On, a Southern movement journalism collective, also shows the critical work of bringing more humanity to this practice, as are others. 

Right here in the Chicago journalism landscape, we have examples of how much we’re not seeing nor listening to all of the communities we purport to serve. Journalists have shown an unwillingness catch up to conversations and analyses of, say, the violence that plagues so many of our neighbors. And where there’s power in naming, we’ve had journalists refuse to even consider how self labeling can serve as a humanizing component of existence while we lean on responsibility narratives that further marginalize. We fall on journalistic tropes on a daily basis, offending and erasing broad swaths of people, committing a type of violence that calls for narrative reparation.

Now middle-aged and idealistic, I was once young and idealistic, fortunate to work with some of the smartest, most creative minds. A newsroom leader I’ll forever cherish encouraged our niche publishing team to stretch our thinking when creating new titles to narrate the lives of people at the intersection of many fault lines — be they immigration, gender, race/ethnicity or otherwise: This person implored us to make spectacular mistakes as a way of growing into our full purpose and potential. The Daily Northwestern apology falls in this category: It was spectacular but not at all in the ways our unstretched minds and worn-out modes would have us believe. The apology broke us — but in the right places so they — and we — can fully commit to evolving journalism in a way that respects our audiences so they can tell the difference and repair the trust gap that has us all on edge about this thing we secretly fear is on life support.

Deborah Douglas is the Eugene S. Pulliam Distinguished Visiting Professor of Journalism at DePauw University. She is a 2019 Studs Terkel Award winner and a former Daily staffer at Northwestern University.




What is lost if photos are pulled to save subject’s pain?

Imagine if the world had never seen that photo of a young Mary Ann Vecchio screaming out in raw emotional pain over the body of Jeffrey Miller, shot dead moments earlier by National Guardsmen at Kent State University in 1970.

Student journalist John Filo’s iconic, Pulitzer-winning photo arguably helped hasten the end of the Vietnam War.

The protest at Kent State on May 4, 1970, was just one of many protests around the country as President Richard Nixon appeared to be moving the war into Cambodia. But the senseless killing of four protesters and the visceral anguish that gushes from Vecchio’s pleading face in that photo were among the forces that helped crystalize Americans’ opposition to prolonging the losing battle in Vietnam that had cost so many lives.

David Crosby showed Neil Young the photo and within weeks Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young’s Ohio anti-war anthem was climbing to No. 14 on the charts: “Tin soldiers and Nixon coming. We’re finally on our own. This summer I heard the drumming. Four dead in Ohio.”

More special coverage from GJR: Journalism failed the young editors and staffers at The Daily Northwestern–not the other way around

Young told VH1 it was Filo’s compelling photo of Vecchio that inspired the song: “That girl leaning over the other kid in a pool of blood, and a look of, ‘Whaaa? What? How could this have happened?’ You know it’s shock … grief,” Young said.

“It’s up to historians to decide whether it helped end the war,” said Jerry Lewis, professor emeritus of sociology at Kent State who dodged bullets that day as a young professor. “It helped bring awareness to the tragedy of the war because Kent State is Middle America.”

The photo also “ruined” Vecchio’s life, she said for many years – though in recent years she has come to appreciate the role her image played in ending the war.

Students protest at Northwestern University on Nov. 5. (Photo by Ignacio Calderon)

Protesters at Northwestern University convinced The Daily Northwestern to take down photos and pull names off quotes because they felt the Daily’s coverage of a protest against former Attorney General Jeff Sessions earlier this month invaded their privacy. 

“Some protesters found photos posted to reporters’ Twitter accounts retraumatizing and invasive,” the Daily’s editors wrote in their extraordinary apology. “Those photos have since been taken down.”

The capitulation by student journalists studying at one of the premiere journalism schools in the United States has provoked a backlash from working journalists who found the self-censorship anathema to everything they learned in journalism school and practiced in the field.

“This was happening in a public space – this wasn’t a private little thing, right? So, what’s the issue?” asked John Filo, the student photo-journalist whose picture has come to symbolize the tragedy of the Kent State shootings. “This flabbergasts me. It’s in a public spot. Hey, ‘Were you there?’ That was part of the reporting. In journalism today, we play these games: ‘alternative facts.’ What really bothers me is Northwestern has such a great journalism school.”

After winning the Pulitzer Prize for his photo of Vecchio, Filo went on to a photo-journalism career that took him to the Associated Press, Sports Illustrated, the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Baltimore Evening Sun, Newsweek and CBS, where he now is vice president of East Coast photography on the corporate side.

Vecchio had a much rougher time after the photo’s publication.

A 14-year-old runaway from Florida, Vecchio sold her story to a reporter for the price of a bus ticket to California. But her father recognized her in the photo and had authorities detain her and send her back to their less-than-ideal home in Florida. She ended up in a juvenile home.

Whether reuniting a 14-year-old runaway with her family is “ruining” her life is in the eye of the beholder, but just imagine had the technology been there in 1970 for Vecchio to tweet a message to then-journalism-student Filo to take down that “trauma porn” photo that would change her life.

That photo arguably changed the course of American history. It helped bring into focus the costs of the Vietnam War. The War killed 58,000 American soldiers and wounded 150,000. More than 3 million Vietnamese soldiers and civilians were killed. The war cost the United States $1 trillion in today’s dollars.

The picture was worth a thousand words. But Filo has had 49 years to think about how his photo affected Vecchio’s life.

“Initially she said the photo ruined her life,” Filo said. “I felt bad for a long time.”

Vecchio married, moved to Nevada, and waved off reporters who sought her out. Only in the last two decades has she started attending the commemorations at Kent State and speaking about her role.

“I feel sorry for her because she’s asked to explain the power of the picture and she can’t explain it – very few people can,” said Lewis, who has attended the commemorations with her.

Filo has shared the stage with Vecchio at those commemorations and their relationship is good now, he says.

“It wasn’t until 25 years later was able to talk to her,” Filo said. “The last time we spoke, she understood it had to be done.”

“We didn’t do anything wrong. Just voicing our opinions on this lawn,” Vecchio told attendees in a 2007 commemoration. “It’s been very emotional every time I come back. I can’t forget. I don’t want you to forget.”

Would Filo have done anything differently?

No.

“The question I get asked a lot is: ‘Would you have presented that photo if it was your brother? Your mother?’ And the answer is Yes. If I was a journalist, I can’t hold that photo back. That was part of the reporting. ‘Would you offer that to the world again?’ Yes. As a photographer, I take on the responsibility for the newspaper or whoever I am reporting for, reporting what I witnessed. Every time you go out, you try to make the best photo ever. I don’t think you’re there to take the biggest historical moment – that’s for history to decide.”

Abdon Pallasch serves as Director of Communications for Illinois State Comptroller Susana Mendoza and is publisher of the Comptroller’s Fiscal Focus magazine. A graduate of Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, he was the Chicago Sun-Times’ Political Reporter and also wrote for The Chicago Tribune, The Tampa Tribune and Chicago Lawyer magazine.