Editors at Northwestern University’s campus newspaper apologized on Sunday for its coverage of student demonstrators, which they said was invasive and “hurt students,” spurring a swift backlash from professional journalists and a broader reckoning over reporting practices and diversity in newsrooms.
The publication, The Daily Northwestern, covers both the university and the surrounding community in Evanston, Ill. The apology addressed the paper’s coverage of an event that featured former Attorney General Jeff Sessions as a speaker last Tuesday and was attended by scores of protesters.
It said that the editors were sorry that photographs of some protesters had been shared by reporters on social media. It also said that reporters’ efforts to contact students for interviews using Northwestern’s directory had been “an invasion of privacy.”
“Ultimately, The Daily failed to consider our impact in our reporting surrounding Jeff Sessions,” the column said. “We know we hurt students that night, especially those who identify with marginalized groups.”
The piece was signed by Troy Closson, the paper’s editor in chief and a student at the university’s Medill School of Journalism, and seven other editors. (The Daily operates independently of Northwestern and Medill.)
The column sparked immediate criticism, much of it from journalists on social media who argued that taking photographs of people in public places and reaching out to ask for interviews is part of the job.
“Being a journalist requires empathy, but this ain’t it,” Gregory Platt of The Chicago Tribune wrote on Twitter on Monday.
“How is it possible that a newspaper at what is allegedly a top journalism school would apologize for the basics of reporting?” Glenn Kessler, a columnist with The Washington Post, said in a tweet on Monday. “This is a travesty and an embarrassment.”
But some wrote in defense of the editors at The Daily.
“I’m more shocked at how angry folks seem to be, because while I wouldn’t have made that choice, I don’t think it’s wild to think about how reporting can impact the people we write about and how to mitigate it,” Tracie Hunte, a reporter for “Radiolab,” the documentary podcast from WNYC, wrote in a tweet on Monday. “They’re trying something and maybe it didn’t work! It’s fine!”
“One of only black students in history to hold his position,” Wesley Lowery, a journalist with The Washington Post, wrote on Twitter on Tuesday, referring to Mr. Closson. “Student journalist who makes incorrect decision based on sincere desire to not harm marginalized campus group is publicly decried by industry’s most powerful (white) journalists. Definitely a lesson to be learned here!”
On Monday, Mr. Closson addressed the criticism. In a series of tweets, he said he appreciated people’s worries and added: “We aren’t unclear about our rights as a newspaper to cover student protest, but also understand the need to do so with empathy.”
Mr. Closson noted that he was navigating his role as one of only a few black editors in chief in The Daily’s more than 135 years.
“Being in this role and balancing our coverage and the role of this paper on campus with my racial identity — and knowing how our paper has historically failed students of color, and particularly black students, has been incredibly challenging to navigate,” he wrote.
“And our statement and the areas it fell short were largely a result of that — of how challenging it can be for marginalized students to navigate situations like those this past week while balancing our identities, roles as student journalists and positions as students at NU.”
The event last week featuring Mr. Sessions was hosted by the Northwestern University College Republicans. Meant to focus on “the real meaning of the ‘Trump agenda,’” it was free and open to the public.
Two days after his speech at Northwestern, Mr. Sessions, a Republican, formally announced that he was entering the Senate race in Alabama. He emphasized his loyalty to President Trump, who forced him from office a year ago after Mr. Sessions recused himself from overseeing the Justice Department’s investigation into whether Mr. Trump and his associates worked illegally with Russians to interfere in the 2016 election.
President Trump has made fighting political correctness and pushing boundaries central to his identity. The issue of free speech on college campuses has become a rallying cry to some of his supporters, including many young conservative activists, who point to instances around the country in which conservative viewpoints — and appearances by conservative speakers — have been shunned or protested by liberal students and professors.
In 2018, during Mr. Sessions’s contentious 21-month tenure at the Justice Department, he announced the administration’s so-called zero-tolerance policy, which led to thousands of family separations along the United States’ border with Mexico.
In an article Wednesday about Mr. Sessions’s speech, The Daily reported that it was interrupted multiple times by demonstrators who pounded on the door of the auditorium where Mr. Sessions was speaking and recited phrases including: “You are a racist; you put kids in cages.”
Another article on Wednesday focused on the protests spurred by the event. It mentioned that university police officers had blocked protesters from entering the venue, and it quoted demonstrators, including a protester who said, “There’s a difference between having a sustained dialogue and listening to other opinions and accepting hate speech and fascism.”
On Friday, The Daily reported, Morton O. Schapiro, the president of the university, said that unlike some institutions, Northwestern does not grant amnesty to student protesters. “You can protest, you can’t hurt anybody and you can’t shut down speech,” he said. “And if you do, you’re going to face the consequences.”
He also questioned whether it had been a good idea to invite Mr. Sessions instead of a different conservative speaker, adding that the episode had been “polarizing.”