Northwestern University
Northwestern University Eugene_Moerman/Getty Images

On Monday, November 11, 2019, a few things happened in the world: Seven people were shot in Chicago, brush fires in Australia moved dangerously close to Sydney, Donald Trump watched Dancing with the Stars, and a student newspaper published an editorial that briefly captured the nation’s media-makers.

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Actually, it was less an editorial than it was an apology. After former Attorney General and current candidate for Alabama Senate Jeff Sessions spoke at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, the Daily Northwestern covered the ensuing student protests. The paper’s coverage was not, apparently, welcome by all of Northwestern’s students, who, according to the editorial, “found photos [of the protests] posted to reporters’ Twitter accounts retraumatizing and invasive.” The students got mad, pitched fits, claimed trauma, and it didn't take long for the paper's editors to apologize and promise to do better.

There was more. The student reporters also used the university directory to contact protesters for comment, which, the editors wrote, they now realized was “an invasion of privacy.” The editors who signed the letter—there were nine, including two chairs of “Diversity and Inclusion”—said that they had spoken will all the paper’s reporters on “the correct way to reach out to students for stories.” What that correct way is was left unstated, but for many working journalists, the fact that these editors would apologize for doing their jobs wasn’t just idiotic, it was indicative of larger problems in education and the media as an industry. As soon as this piece was posted online, Media Twitter went off.

It’s not hard to see why reporters were troubled. Not only do we love nothing more than talking about the failings of the younger generation, here were students from the top journalism school in the country actually apologizing for doing their job because some students were “traumatized” by getting unsolicited texts. We're used to college kids claiming harm over everything, but if the top journalism students in the country—the people who will soon be staffing newspapers and websites and magazines across the U.S.—apologize for doing their jobs, what does that say about the future of the free press? What does it say about us?

For me, this story checked every box: It wasn’t just a juicy media story, it was a juicy media story plus a Kids Today story. It was the kind of thing I am highly attuned to pay attention to (call it my own personal confirmation bias), and, what's more, the apology showed a deep misunderstanding of the role of the press, which isn’t to censor the news, it’s to report it. Media is under attack from all sides, from Trump screaming about “fake news” to corporate consolidation and the lack of local reporting, and here is the next generation of reporters promising to not do their jobs. This could have been an opportunity for aspiring journalists to educate the student body about what reporters do and the importance of reaching out to sources, even if they don’t want to talk, but instead, these students took out the horsetails and started whipping themselves on the back. It was galling.

After the article first crossed my Twitter feed on Monday afternoon, I briefly considered the repercussions of tweeting about it. I didn’t want to be a part of a pile-on, mostly because I’m on the record as opposing social media call-outs (an ethical stance that continues to come back and haunt me). But, I rationalized, if there’s ever a reason to join a call-out, it’s when a norm I personally hold dear has been violated. Besides, the target was an institution, not any one person, and I was about to get on an hour-long ferry and I’d forgotten my book. This would entertain me until I lost service. So I tweeted about it, as did seemingly every other writer on Twitter.

The outrage machine whirred to life. First, there were the tweets like mine—appalled, derisive, sure this editorial indicative of something bigger (which it is). And then, like clockwork, came the backlash to the backlash, as the more intersectional among us logged on to ask why we weren’t talking about the real problem (diversity in the media). And then came the “Actually guys” guys, announcing that the biggest problem is Sinclair, corporate consolidation, and the death of independent news. The hot takes almost write themselves, and, naturally, the story of this student newspaper has now been covered both by local and national press. That’s how the cycle works, and the crowd will move on entirely as soon as Trump logs on for his afternoon tweets and our attention shifts back to White House.

Watching students, no matter how idiotic, get dragged all across Twitter certainly takes the fun out of the cycle for me, but perhaps outrage, in this case, is warranted. The dean of the college addressed the controversy in a scathing rebuke of the student protesters who complained about the Daily’s coverage: “I understand why the Daily editors felt the need to issue their mea culpa,” wrote Charles Whitaker in a statement. “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.”

Of course, it did not: Some students may have been pacified to have won a collective We're Sorry, but, Whitaker continued, “their well-intentioned gesture sends a chilling message about journalism and its role in society. It suggests that we are not independent authors of the community narrative, but are prone to bowing to the loudest and most influential voices in our orbit.”

And that, truly, is a problem, whether it’s coming from students or subscribers or people on Twitter. The system is creaking under the weight of reader feedback at the same time that ad money dries up and trusted institutions are replaced by Facebook and Twitter. Writers and editors and publishers are scared to piss off the public, and can anyone blame them? If an unsolicited text message leads to allegations of harm, trauma, and victimization, how can journalists do their jobs? The math just doesn’t work.

In a year or two or four years from now, these journalism students will be entering a job market that doesn’t want them: There’s news to cover, to be sure, but there’s not enough money and too many content creators (née reporters) vying for a smaller and smaller slice of the funding. So if I were advising the students of Northwestern or anywhere, I’d say this: If you can’t tolerate bothering people—or even pissing them off—look for a career somewhere else. The job of the media isn’t to appease the people, it’s to report on what’s happening, whether the people involved like it or not. And if that doesn’t work for you, that’s fine as well. Careers in journalism may be scarce, but they seem to be booming in PR and marketing. I hear both Facebook and Twitter are hiring.