A renowned journalism school’s paper recently apologized for ‘traumatizing’ students by posting photos of their participation in a public protest. Is protecting people from the consequences of their actions now the media’s duty?
The purpose of journalism is “comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable,” according to a quote frequently attributed to newspaper baron William Randolph Hearst. At Northwestern University – home to a renowned journalism school – the profession’s task seems to be comforting the comfortable, while belittling the afflicted.
University paper The Daily Northwestern printed a fulsome apology for “contributing to the harm students experienced” as they protested an appearance by former Attorney General Jeff Sessions at a campus College Republicans event. The nature of that harm? Reporters assigned to cover the event photographed the protesters and posted the photos on social media – a breathtakingly normal act of journalism that they realized only afterwards was “retraumatizing and invasive,” according to the apology.
The obsequious screed apparently took eight people to write, including the paper’s “Diversity and Inclusion Chair.”
It’s not clear what exactly about the protest coverage was “traumatizing” – perhaps the fact that Sessions himself called the protests “stupid,” a quote which was presumably printed next to photos of the impassioned students chanting slogans like “I-C-E, KKK, how many kids have you killed today?”
Liberal college students think nothing of “outing” participants in right-leaning protests, often accompanied by suggestions they are “white supremacists” or “fascists.” Surely they wouldn’t be so hypocritical as to cry invasion of privacy when the camera was turned on them, especially since the reporters not only spared them such demeaning labels but actually contacted them to get their side of the story!
What is clear is that an apology like the one the paper printed is diametrically opposed to what college in general and journalism school in particular are meant to teach. Students chose to protest the former Alabama senator in public, and presumably believed in the insults they hurled at him and his supporters. If college, which has become a glorified finishing school for young adults, is supposed to prepare students for “the real world,” absolving them of responsibility for their actions is the wrong way to go about it. Journalism is meant to hold people to account for their deeds, not shield them from the consequences.
If Northwestern believes the very concept of personal responsibility is traumatizing, how exactly are its journalists supposed to cover the real world? The very idea of fact-checking requires an individual to stand by their words and actions – if every time a journalist called a subject to confirm a quote, the subject could just deny saying it, the very idea of fact-checking (or facts themselves) becomes a joke. Unless the intention is to prepare young journalists for an Orwellian future in which inconvenient facts are fed down the memory hole (or deleted from Wikipedia), the school has taught them the wrong lesson.
The whole affair bodes ill for American democracy, which requires citizens to take a certain degree of responsibility for how they are governed. The protesters were essentially able to duck responsibility for making a political statement.
In a democratic republic, which the US claims to be, citizens are at least partially responsible for their government through their votes – as are the politicians they elect. Many of the 2020 presidential candidates have been taken to task for one vote or another, for backing an unconstitutional war or a racist crime bill, either by another candidate on the debate stage or by journalists who believe in personal responsibility. A journalist’s job is to ask the hard questions, not avoid them out of concern for offending or traumatizing the subject.
This kind of padded-room culture has created a society in which someone can boast about stealing a woman’s purse on Twitter, justifying it “because homophobia,” and getting cheered on by 127,000 people
Without this kind of “victim privilege,” in which minority status is wielded as a cudgel against even good-faith critics, few would want the struggles that come with being a member of a marginalized group. Young people taught to worship at the altar of surface-level diversity find victim privilege intoxicating and want a piece for themselves – especially if they’ve never been victimized in their lives and don’t realize it’s not exactly pleasant.
Allowing students to decide that being reminded of their days-old political statements constitutes “trauma” in any way not only insults those who have actually experienced trauma, but sets students up for complete failure in life should they ever encounter real obstacles. In a nation that claims to cherish its democratic society, it creates voters incapable of holding their government responsible for its actions. The result is a nation of spoiled children with nuclear weapons.
By Helen Buyniski,