03:10 - Source: CNN
Differences between journalism and activism

Editor’s Note: Sharif Durhams is a senior editor who oversees CNN’s US homepages. He is president of NLGJA: The Association of LGBTQ Journalists and a lifetime member of the National Association of Black Journalists. He was the first black editor in chief of The Daily Tar Heel at the University of North Carolina. The views expressed here are his. Read more opinion on CNN.

CNN —  

A swarm of journalists on social media descended this week on editors of The Daily Northwestern. The student journalists exhaustively covered protests of an on-campus appearance by former Attorney General Jeff Sessions – taking photos of students being shoved by officers, using social media to track down protestors and get their side of the story.

Sharif Durhams
Sharif Durhams

Those actions are journalism, as disruptive as it can be to those whose lives are impacted by it. And the student journalists apologized for committing it, publishing on their newspaper’s website a detailed statement of regret.

In doing so, they made a mistake. Their apology was an overreaction. Since the Northwestern students are at one of the country’s most prestigious journalism schools, I’ll assume there are an adequate number of professors and advisers to tell them they misstepped without alumni tweeting their embarrassment and other woe-is-the-profession journalists piling on.

As much as the students’ apology went too far, so also have the journalists who have called them out for it. Their righteous outrage misses an important point: The Northwestern students will learn from the mistake. Their critics should focus more on what the students were trying to address – a lack of attention to the values of minimizing harm, covering communities with empathy and having diverse leadership in newsrooms that pervades our industry.

The editors’ misstep occurred after they faced pressure from students from marginalized groups who argued that photos of them being held down by police were traumatizing and that texting students and asking them to comment on the melee was also traumatizing.

In their apology, staffers led by Troy Closson, only the third black editor in his publication’s more than 135-year history, wrote that their Daily Northwestern “was not the paper that Northwestern students deserve.”

“We feel that covering traumatic events requires a different response than many other stories,” Closson and several staffers said in a published statement. “While our goal is to document history and spread information, nothing is more important than ensuring that our fellow students feel safe – and in situations like this, that they are benefitting from our coverage rather than being actively harmed by it.”

When someone said there are values that trump truth, independence and thorough reporting, journalists and a good number of critics beyond the profession swooped in. In this case, many called the student journalists’ actions pathetic, sniveling and told them to “stop pretending” they’re being journalists.

We must get the facts right, but we also take on a responsibility when we decide whose concerns get centralized in our coverage. That power has consequences. A recent examination of journalists and their work in Pittsburgh reflected newsrooms that lack the diversity of the communities they cover. Those newsrooms don’t cover those communities as well as they should.

Local newsrooms failed to build relationships in minority communities, which led to distrust, according to that research, done by The Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University. “I think in certain neighborhoods, especially in black neighborhoods in Pittsburgh, there was a natural skepticism of the media. There was a perception that we were just there to do the crime story of the day, or the drug arrest story of the day,” said one journalist highlighted in the study.

That’s where many of the newsrooms the Northwestern students’ critics work in are lacking. After decades of commitment to improving diversity in mainstream newsrooms, the numbers have barely budged. Only 23% of legacy newsrooms were willing to respond to a survey from the American Society of News Editors of how diverse their newsrooms are, which makes you wonder what the newsrooms look like that didn’t. Back when more newspapers provided numbers, it was clear the structural and financial struggles confronting the industry were hitting minority journalists more than their white counterparts.

As the first black editor-in-chief of the University of North Carolina’s student paper, I and my staff covered stories about the arrests of black students and student government campaigns involving racial dynamics in a way that would please The Daily Northwestern’s detractors and that I still defend 20 years later. My critics asked whether we used the power of our platform correctly, whether we covered the positive aspects of black Greek fraternities with the nuance and cultural competency that we covered white Greek life. They had a point.

Having worked in four newsrooms since my college editing days, the most powerful lesson I’ve learned is that the best journalists are the ones who bring their whole selves to their work, particularly when they come from different circumstances from those who’ve typically run newsrooms. They enrich the places they work. They empower people whom journalism has not yet lifted up. They serve as a check on unconscious biases, and they make news stories a closer reflection of the truth Northwestern’s critics are seeking to uphold.

It turns out Closson is pretty insightful about journalism’s failures in this area. On Twitter, he acknowledged his staff’s apology overcorrected in some ways, but he described the balancing act he faced. “Being in this role and balancing our coverage and the role of this paper on campus with my racial identity – and knowing how our paper has historically failed students of color, and particularly black students, has been incredibly challenging to navigate,” he wrote.

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    The industry figures seem to indicate we need more Clossons. Journalism Twitter needs to pick the right fights. This one wasn’t it. Improving diversity is.