Using the Northwestern issue in class and unpublishing stories

December 8, 2019

Seldom does a college or university student publication do something that garnered the nation attention the Daily Northwestern got last month when it redacted photos from its website and retroactively changed how it originally covered a campus story.

Mainstream media and bloggers across the country leaped on to the decision –the decision, not the story– like fleas on a dog. Most pilloried  the students for their decision while others allowed that the decision was similar to ones publications make all the time.

Stories like this make good discussion points for student journalism courses when they happened. I wondered both whether California community college instructors were bring it up in their courses for discussion and how prevalent the call to redact stories were and how student publications deal with requests like that.

I polled California’s community college instructors about both questions. Most did not respond. I only received about a dozen responses to each question. As a a result, it is hard to characterize the extent of those discussions or how often reaction requests occur, but below are some responses I did receive.

I also shared, via my Online Elsewhere newsletter sent to instructors, an array of the the mainstream and blog reactions I had culled from the RSS feeds I monitored those first few weeks:

When I was teaching it was sometimes difficult to add discussions on current issues like that in my mass communication courses in real time because I had the whole course mapped out ahead of time. If we were talking about movies, for instance, it is difficult to reference the Northwestern situation without disrupting the plan for the course. Now, if our look at print media was going on, it was easy to fit a current topic like this in. But what happened if we had already covered and gone beyond out look at print media?

My newswriting and student publication courses were different. It was always much easier to take a class period or two to talk about it in the newswriting course. I could call attention to the newspaper staff in real time and we could take a time out in production to discuss it.

As for calls for redaction. Yeah, because of digital media we got requests all the time. I specifically recall a former college president calling me up several years after she was forced out of the college and asking that we remove a story about her troubles at the college because it kept showing up first on Google when people searched her name; it was getting in the way of her finding new president jobs. The editorial board voted NOT to remove the story.

But in my last few years at the college the student editors DID decide to remove or alter stories when sources they had interviewed appropriately came back and said they were afraid their ex-relationship was stalking them and locating them because their name showed up in the story. The print version could not be changed, but it was more difficult for the ex to search print. Like many of the pundits who pilloried the Northwestern editors, I felt they made poor, non-journalistic decisions.

So what happens at college publications I surveyed these days?

First, only seven instructors said they had shared the Northwestern story with their students within the first few weeks after it occurred. Only one said she had shared it in a mass communications course and one in a newswriting course. All said they had shared it with their student publications editors. And in almost all cases, the students disagreed with the decision made by the Northwestern editors. In one case, the students had no reaction. One instructor went a step further in sharing the story and shared this:

“I first shared their (the Northwestern editors) mea culpa. At first the staff really identified with the statement, as they are all very, very new, literally first-semester students.

“Then I gave them the original article, and they, of their own volition, began to push back on the apology.

“Finally, I shared the dean’s statement. By that point, the students were quite organically coming to some of the same conclusions as the dean.

“I used the opportunity to reinforce some journalistic expectations and standards.”

About the time I was monitoring the Northwestern decision stories Nieman Lab published an article about the coming wave of requests to unpublished stories. I decided to ask community college advisers about requests from readers to redact or change stories that had already been published.

Again, only about a dozen advisers responded. A larger response would have given some insight into how common the problem was, but only two of those 12 instructors responding indicated that the issue had not come up in the last two years. Most of those who did indicate that the publication had been asked said that student editors rejected the request, but there were some instances where changes were made. Here is a sampling of the answers I received.

  • A former editor asks to remove rape opinion +3 other opinions. It was second time the request was made. Policy says staff votes. Both times staff vote to keep. Meeting with VP in a couple of weeks to discuss further. (We had) crafted an unpublish policy the first time request to take down came. Gave her option to add comment to original. She said OK, but never got back until recently when she asked to take it down again.
  • Did change a misleading headline to something more appropriate.
  • It happens with old stories when people Google themselves. We tell them it is our policy to not remove articles
  • Years ago we were asked to remove an article. A faculty member regretted talking about drunk band mate. The EIC made the decision after discussing with others. The article was not taken down.
  • Staff and faculty threatened with blackmail by yet to be identified person. Students and adviser discussed it briefly and agreed the answer was no.
  • An employee in a photo we took during a lockdown situation asked for the photo to be removed, saying she didn’t give her consent for the photo. The EIC made the call with discussion with the adviser, as the employee reached out to the adviser rather than the EIC staff.
  • A writer for our magazine reviewed a local arcade. After publishing, the owner of the arcade brought up several factual errors in the story and asked for its retraction. The new magazine EIC, in discussion with the adviser, elected to take down the story until it could be rewritten without the factual errors.
  • Former student didn’t want abusive, threatening ex to find her or her children. She wanted her articles removed. Student editors agreed to remove her opinion pieces but kept her restaurant reviews. They did change the byline to Staff.
  • The subject of a profile feature was unhappy with how she was portrayed in the story. It was an extremely positive story about an alumna who had broken barriers in her field. She demanded that the reporter take down the story and even went so far as to rewrite the story the way she wanted it and ask that the “new” version be posted. The student reporter felt intimidated and thought because an adult told her to remove the story, she needed to do so. She did. She then requested that I read the story. I found nothing wrong with the story, and strongly urged her to reconsider her choice (very little time had passed since the story was removed.) In consult with the editor in chief, the story was restored to the website. We did not notify the subject.
  • A former reporter who did excellent work asked that we take a video piece she did down because she was going into a different field (I’m guessing). The adviser contacted former student to tell her why that is not possible.
  • A former ASCC wanted a story in which he was quoted taken down. Staff did not take the story down. They made the decision. They did want advice from me about it, but honestly, they were already thinking about it how I was.

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