Tales of two student papers has much to teach us

Student journalists at Northwestern and Harvard universities have been taking a lot of heat lately for doing their jobs.

At The Daily Northwestern, reporters were harshly criticized for the way they covered fellow students who protested U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ visit to campus. Reporters tweeted photos of the protesters and used the school directory to contact students to request interviews. Those students didn’t like it.

Then, on Nov. 10, the paper ran an editorial, apologizing for its actions. That move earned them even more criticism, this time from a host of professional journalists who stated in no uncertain terms that they should not apologize for doing their job.

At Harvard University last month, student journalists were criticized for contacting Immigration and Customs Enforcement as part of their coverage of an “Abolish ICE” protest on campus. The student group that hosted the rally, Act on a Dream, claimed doing so put undocumented students in danger.

The Crimson’s editors stood by their decision, saying they were following journalistic standards.

“Foremost among those standards is the belief that every party named in a story has a right to comment or contest criticism leveled against them,” they wrote in an Oct. 22 note to readers.

“At stake here, we believe, is one of the core tenets that defines America’s free and independent press,” they went on to say. “A world where news outlets categorically refuse to contact certain kinds of sources — a world where news outlets let third-party groups dictate the terms of their coverage — is a less informed, less accurate and ultimately less democratic world.”

So what do these two instances involving student newspapers have to do with us, who produce The Hinsdalean each week, and you, our readers? We believe there are a couple of lessons to be learned.

The first is about the role newspapers play in a community, whether that be college campus or an affluent Chicago suburb. A newspaper’s job is to report the news — whether or not the subjects of its stories or its readers like it. People who participate in a protest or speak at a village or school board meeting are airing their views in public, and they need to recognize that they may be photographed by or quoted in a newspaper by doing so.

The second is that we, as adults, need to model a world in which there is space for disagreement, an acknowledgment that there are two sides to every issue and a return to civility. One of the ways we help create that world is by understanding a newspaper’s responsibility to tell both sides of the story — to find out why students want to see ICE abolished and then give ICE officials the chance to defend the organization.

As fictional President Andrew Shepherd says in “The American President,” free speech means we have to “acknowledge a man whose words make (our) blood boil and who’s standing center stage and advocating at the top of his lungs that which (we) would spend a lifetime opposing at the top of (ours).”

“America isn’t easy,” he says. Maybe that’s the most important lesson here. Democracy isn’t easy. But it’s worth it.