If an industry cannot detect chinks in its armor, its days may be numbered.
So if a newspaper apologizes for covering the news, we wonder how long readers will take that newspaper seriously.
Last month, we told of a college newspaper doing it right. The Harvard Crimson reported on a rally by a pro-immigration group and the group's demand that the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency be abolished. The paper then reached out to ICE for a comment on the rally.
Harvard students were furious the Crimson, in an attempt at fairness and balance, asked ICE officials their opinion. But that's what newspapers do.
Earlier this month, The Daily Northwestern of Northwestern University sent its writers to report on a speech by former Trump administration Attorney General Jeff Sessions and on the students who were protesting the event sponsored by College Republicans. Days later, it apologized for covering the protest, saying students found some of the photos published "retraumatizing and invasive" and that contacting other students was "an invasion of privacy."
Last we checked, the protesting students, pounding on doors to disrupt the speech and interacting with police, were there of their own accord. No one dragged them to the public event and forced them to be there if they didn't want to be.
And the students who were contacted for comment by text message were free not to respond or to answer by saying they had no comment. They would certainly have had no problem saying they didn't want to meet their friends at Bluestone or Bat 17 or couldn't go to the protest because they had a paper to finish.
But The Daily Northwestern said it recognized "we contributed to the harm the students experienced, and we wanted to apologize for ... the mistakes that we made that night."
It further abrogated its journalism responsibilities by going the route taken by too many colleges and universities today by seeming to blame the problems on the selection of speaker, as if an institution of higher education offering a variety of viewpoints was irresponsible.
"Ultimately," the apology signed by eight staff members said, "The Daily failed to consider our impact in our reporting surrounding Jeff Sessions. We know we hurt students ... especially those who identify with marginalized groups."
They also said they felt "covering traumatic events requires a different response than many other stories. While our goal is to document history and spread information, nothing is more important than ensuring that our fellow students feel safe."
For many years, Northwestern's Medill School of Journalism has been ranked as one of the top journalism schools in the country. But we wonder if the staff members who signed the apology had been listening in class.
Several days after the apology, the school's dean, Charles Whitaker, released a statement saying the newspaper staff members had been bullied and badgered over their coverage and that their subsequent apology was "not well-considered."
He also repudiated the apology's content, saying coverage of the protests "was in no way beyond the bounds of fair, responsible journalism" and in no way "violated the personal space of the protesters by reporting on the proceedings, which were conducted in the open and were designed, ostensibly, to garner attention."
Whitaker further said he rejects "the notion that our students have no right to report on communities other than those from which they hail, and I will never affirm that students who do not come from marginalized communities cannot understand or accurately convey the struggles of those populations."
He then implored critics of the students to "give [them] a break" because "you are not living with them through this firestorm, facing the brutal onslaught of venom and hostility that has been directed their way on weaponized social media."
We would not disagree of the horror that weaponized social media has become, but we would remind the dean who sounds like a very thoughtful administrator that newspapers and other media always have had to fight the haters, the intolerant and those who disagree in order to print or broadcast the news.
If journalists become timid about reporting or resort to only news that fits their world view, they have lost the battle. Many media consumers already believe that's happened. But we hope the Northwestern newspaper students will adhere to their dean's advice and will put on sterner armor.
Because, as Whitaker so correctly said, "Journalism — when executed fairly, accurately and independently — allows a society to see itself in all its splendor and strife. It often is our only chronicle of the people and events that shape and govern our existence."
If we lose that, we've lost a lot.