opinion

Keeping tradition or starting anew: Questioning the ethics of journalism

Image By: Jacob Schellpfeffer

When the New York Times reached out to me, I had no clue what Julie Bosman, one of the writers behind The Northwestern Daily follow-up piece, was referring to. However, to understand why she sent an email to me, I spent my morning lecture looking at different news outlets in order to spell out what happened on the Northwestern campus. 

I told her I wasn’t well-read in the situation, but would take the interview — either way, I had some things to say. 

Here’s the thing, I’m not a journalism student. I came to this newspaper knowing very little about journalism — my first article was about the Go Big Read of 2018. It was lackluster, to say the least. I don’t have the chops to be a big-time reporter, but that’s not why I sit at my desk everyday. Bottom line is: I’m not an expert and I will not pretend to be.

But, traditional journalism ethics is not the code of conduct I’ve ever lived by. The journalism I learned through writing pieces and contacting sources was less about being a good reporter and more about being a listener — a person writing a story for the things that go unseen, the voices that go unheard. 

No, that doesn’t mean every story was a dream come true. Some of them were just to make word count. But, isn’t this the inherent problem I’m getting at?

What is the value of tradition if it isn’t equitable for everyone? 

I don’t sit in the same chair everyday to tell people to follow rules I don’t believe in. And what are those rules, you might ask? Like choosing to use the word ‘racist’ in a story when something is blatantly racist, instead of skirting around the word — thank you AP Style for catching up with the times earlier this year. And also, me writing this opinion piece as the editor-in-chief of this newspaper — I’m expected to be a neutral, respectable robot.

That’s why I’m writing this. And yes, this is going to be very meta. 

Now, The Daily Northwestern was probably just doing what they felt was right. On Nov. 5, former Attorney General Jeff Sessions visited the campus in an event from the College Republicans. That night, there was a protest, to which the paper sent a photographer and reporter to cover the event. They received feedback they had harmed students attending the protest by releasing photos and invading privacy through using a directory and contacting students. They since apologized.

When you are backed against a wall, it forces you to reconsider what you’ve done. I’ve been there. However, I think their decision to apologize is not as clear-cut or black and white as it may seem. 

In fact, my entire conversation with Bosman was in between “I don’t knows” and “I don’t have all the answers,” because they didn’t make the wrong call in apologizing. Through my eyes, they were listening to their community. 

Does that mean I believe we should stop taking pictures at protests? No. 

Does that mean I believe we should stop asking questions to protestors? No. 

But, all these stories I’ve read, all these opinions I have, most of the people I’ve gotten support from are white. I’m looking through a white lens and that’s just the problem. The people hurt were marginalized populations. And to say it doesn’t matter, that “journalism is just journalism,” is false. I don’t believe that. 

When a story has controversy, that’s when journalism saves the day. That story will remain up, you made the mistake, the story merely revealed the evidence. 

Specifically, when people of color are harmed based off tradition — tradition that is set into place by a collective of white men, much like our Constitution — it’s not being the hero, it’s being a white savior. 

And, to be honest, that’s how I read myself in the New York Times article. My conversation with Bosman was wonderful and I believe she was merely doing her job. Yet, my first thought when my first quote came out was the pain it would cause to the marginalized people I hurt by appearing as an activist for classical journalism. 

I did say what I said and I stand by it. But that’s just the trick, right? You rarely get the full conversation and context is everything. I would say the same thing again if I spoke to Bosman right now — there was just a bit missing. 

Yes, I wouldn’t have given it a second thought to send someone to a protest — I’ve attended many as a protestor and a reporter. Discovering the backlash from the Sessions protest was a learning experience for me as well. 

It poses the questions: who are you hurting when you go? The answers are not clear as they seem — and empathy is essential because we are writing for the public. 

Reading about this experience and knowing about our policy, I’m approaching it differently. I’ll be asking more questions, being more involved with the writers, ensuring people’s lives are being valued — something I was not doing before. 

The story I told Bosman prior to talking about the Sessions' protest at Northwestern was that we had the same situation essentially happen — one we avoided. 

The UW-Madison Homecoming video celebrating the “typical” student experience meant the erasure of many populations already devoid of opportunity at our school. Many students of color banded together for the Student Inclusion Coalition protest — #WeAreSICofUW — atop Bascom in the days following the video’s release.

Try to look for a story at our newspaper and you won’t find it. 

We didn’t send anyone. I got a tip they didn’t want media there and left it alone. It wasn’t about getting someone from our paper to write and take pictures.

Being in the dominant population on campus, the protest was not for me to sit and edit 250 words from one of our white news editors. It wasn’t about me at all. I will leave them to tell their story on what it means to them and not waste space explaining what I think it means.

Yes, The Daily Northwestern apologized for doing their jobs in many ways. But to say they are wrong in their choice is false. I see both sides. I live in both sides. And that’s the code I live by as a leader. 

I don’t know what traditional journalism is in full — and I never will — yet, there are injustices within those systemic expectations that I don’t condone. My code is not about what makes a good journalist, it’s what makes an active listener.

I know, it’s extremely subjective. Its roots are in social justice and it might take a little longer, but change needs to happen and it’s going to take time. If I wanted to be efficient, I would just abide by classic rules and call it a night. 

Rules say don’t put the Opinion section on the front page — but when the university messes up, opinion editors need to call them out on it. We live in a world of respectability politics, a need to be fake nice, to love every single person on the planet. Some people aren’t that great and everyone makes mistakes — how will anyone learn to be better if they aren’t held accountable? 

I’ve been called out many times and I’m learning. I always am. I don’t have all the answers, but that’s why I’m in a leadership role. I will mess up probably tomorrow and the day after that — I’m clumsy as hell — but I take those experiences as an opportunity to improve my position and the way I see the world. 

Should I be extending that ideology onto the staff of The Daily Cardinal? Who’s to say? But I still believe it's okay to call people out on their shit, it’s important for people to call me out on mine. 

I know journalists are expected to be objective. But, I’m not going to hold my tongue in the face of injustice to make people think I’m doing the right thing as the editor in chief. I’m trying to use this position as a way to move journalism forward — to hold a story until the narrative is ready, to say something is racist when it is, to be accessible and accommodating for sources.

There are always place to draw the line — when a source wants to read what you have before you publish or always including all sides in Opinion, and perhaps even news pieces if it’s damaging to people.

But that doesn’t mean you stop listening.

I think that’s where I get the most tripped up between holding onto the past and looking to the future of reporting. What does it mean to be a listener — and an active one at that? 

At the end of the day, having a five-minute conversation asking why those folx attending the protest didn’t want their photo featured and didn’t want to be contacted for a story is one worth having. Just like language, journalism ethics are fluid and need to be treated as such. That doesn’t mean rules shouldn’t exist, but there should always be room for growth.

I don’t know all the decision-making that went into the Sessions protest coverage and the apology after. This job is hard, it’s easy to miss things. It’s hard to always be on point. Mistakes will happen. 

As a fellow leader of a newspaper, I feel for you, Troy Closson and the entire Daily Northwestern leadership team.

However, I think a lot of outlets have it wrong — and perhaps I do as well — but I believe I’m not the one that should’ve been contacted for an interview. It was the people that were harmed. 

They are the future of journalism.

Robyn Cawley is the Editor-in-Chief of The Daily Cardinal, and is a senior studying English and Environmental Studies. What are your thoughts on the situation with The Daily Northwestern? Send all comments to opinion@dailycardinal.com.  

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