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Research Article

Student Activism vs. Student Journalism: Racial Justice, Free Speech, and Journalism Ethics in College Newspapers

Received 27 Sep 2022
Accepted 08 Jan 2023
Published online: 24 Jan 2023


Using two recent controversies involving campus social justice protests and student news organizations, this study uses an interdisciplinary lens to examine free expression and normative journalism ethics discourse. It explores themes related to First Amendment rights and values, journalism ethics, and racial justice, asking which are evident and absent in opinion journalism focused on the cases. It examines universities’ dual missions of supporting free expression and advancing the goals of diversity, equity, and inclusion.


In fall 2019, student newspaper staffs at two prominent universities sparked sharp criticism from marginalized communities over their coverage of campus controversies. At Harvard University, activists claimed the Crimson newspaper's coverage of an “abolish ICE” event put protesters at risk. At Northwestern University, students complained that coverage of protests caused harm to students of color. The two papers, however, diverged markedly in their response to the complaints. The Crimson staff published a note explaining and defending their practices, while the Northwestern editors apologized for their reporting, promising “reform and reflection.”

Student newspapers occupy an important space for advancing academic freedom and free expression in higher education. At many institutions, student newspapers serve as an independent check on institutional authority and a voice for students and the broader university community. Yet, many student newspapers face serious threats to their financial viability and editorial independence, putting these historically important institutions at risk. Demands that student journalists abandon their traditional role of neutral reportage may be another existential threat.

The Harvard and Northwestern cases raise difficult issues illustrating tensions among traditional student press and speech freedoms, journalism ethics, and the modern university's goals of advancing diversity, equity, and inclusion. How should student journalists respond to claims that their coverage of campus events causes psychological harm requiring changes and apologies? What standards should they use to minimize harms from their reporting while also covering sensitive issues? What are the implications for journalism and press freedom when student newspapers alter their coverage in response to vocal critics? And what are the implications when they refuse to challenge traditional practices?

This paper offers an in-depth examination of these two cases through an interdisciplinary lens of First Amendment theory and normative journalism ethics discourse. In analyzing opinion journalism related to the two cases, it explores expressions of First Amendment rights and values, journalism ethics, and racial justice, asking which are evident and absent in the coverage. It also interrogates universities’ dual missions of supporting free expression and advancing the goals of diversity, equity, and inclusion. While advocates and activists often pit these missions against each other, this research seeks to explore means through which press freedom and student expression are essential to, rather than detract from, an inclusive campus environment.

Activists vs. Journalists: The Harvard and Northwestern Cases

On 12 September 2019, a student-led immigration advocacy group named “Act on a Dream” hosted a rally at Harvard University, calling for dissolution of the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency. The following day, the Crimson, Harvard's student newspaper, ran a news story titled, “Harvard Affiliates Rally for Abolish ICE Movement” (Harvard Crimson Citation2019). The story covered the rally, and student reporters sought, but did not receive, comment from ICE. A month later, Act on a Dream and other signatories posted a petition on Change.org, castigating the Crimson for calling ICE for comment and demanding both an apology and assurance that such calls would not be made in the future (Harvard College Act on a Dream Citation2019). The petition stated, in part:

We are extremely disappointed in the cultural insensitivity displayed by The Crimson's policy to reach out to ICE, a government agency with a long history of surveilling and retaliating against those who speak out against them. … In this political climate, a request for comment is virtually the same as tipping them off, regardless of how they are contacted. We strongly condemn their decision to uphold a policy that blatantly endangers undocumented students on our campus. The Crimson, as a student-run publication, has a responsibility to prioritize the safety of the student body they are reporting on — they must reexamine and interrogate policies that place students under threat. Responsible journalism includes being conscious about the impact caused by their actions as a news organization. (Harvard College Act on a Dream Citation2019)

The petitioners made three demands: “Apologize for the harm they inflicted on the undocumented community. Critically engage with and change their policies that require calling ICE for comment. Declare their commitment to protecting undocumented students on campus” (Harvard College Act on a Dream Citation2019).

In addition to Act on a Dream, 10 other groups joined as signatories, including the Harvard College Democrats, Harvard Fuerza Latina, Harvard Women in Computer Science, and the Harvard Black Men's Forum (Harvard College Act on a Dream Citation2019). Before the petition was posted, Act on a Dream leaders met with the Crimson's president and managing editor to express their concerns. They did not respond to requests from the Crimson for its story on the petition and tweeted a call for students to decline interview requests from the Crimson until it changed its policies (Harvard Crimson Citation2019).

Crimson President Kristine Guillaume released an email statement defending the paper's practices, writing that the paper upholds “fundamental journalistic values” and gives the people and organizations it reports on the opportunity to comment for stories. “This policy demonstrates a commitment to ensuring that the individuals and institutions we write about have an opportunity to respond to criticisms in order to ensure a fair and unbiased story” (Harvard Crimson Citation2019). The statement clarified that the call to ICE for comment came after the conclusion of the protest, and the reporters did not provide protester names or immigration statuses to the agency.

Guillaume and Managing Editor Angela Fu also posted an explanatory statement on the paper’s website, explaining the paper’s practices and tying them to larger journalistic contexts.

At stake here, we believe, is one of the core tenets that defines America's free and independent press: the right — and prerogative — of reporters to contact any person or organization relevant to a story to seek that entity's comment and view of what transpired. This ensures the article is as thorough, balanced, and unbiased toward any particular viewpoint as possible. 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. (Fu and Guillaume Citation2019)

A month after the Harvard petition caught attention, a similar situation unfolded at Northwestern University. Student journalists at the Daily Northwestern faced criticism from some students involved in tense protests over a speech by former U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions, “The Real Meaning of the ‘Trump Agenda’.” Invited to campus by the College Republicans, Sessions’ 5 November 2019, appearance was met with about 150 protesters, some of whom tried to push through doors or climb through windows to disrupt the speech. The Daily covered the protest, capturing photographs of identifiable demonstrators that it then published on social media (Rhodes Citation2019).

The Daily quickly faced criticism from protesters and others who argued that some found the social media posts to be “invasive and traumatizing” (Rhodes Citation2019). Others questioned why student reporters used a campus directory to find phone numbers for demonstrators and call them for interviews.

In contrast to the decisions made by the Crimson staff, the Daily staff chose to unpublish the material and apologize to those affected (Shepherd Citation2019). In a statement from the paper's leadership posted to the Daily's website, the staff wrote, “We recognize that we contributed to the harm students experienced, and we wanted to apologize for and address the mistakes that we made that night — along with how we plan to move forward” (Closson Citation2019). The statement focused squarely on questions of trauma and harm that might come from news coverage:

On one hand, as the paper of record for Northwestern, we want to ensure students, administrators and alumni understand the gravity of the events that took place Tuesday night. However, we decided to prioritize the trust and safety of students who were photographed. We feel that 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 — and in situations like this, that they are benefitting from our coverage rather than being actively harmed by it. We failed to do that last week, and we could not be more sorry. (Closson Citation2019)

Daily Editor Troy Closson, only the third Black person to lead the paper in its 135-year history, wrote on Twitter that the situation had been complex and difficult for the staff and for him personally.

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. (Closson Citation2019)

He also told the Washington Post,

Something we thought about a lot this week is how challenging it is to be student journalists who are reporting about other students. We’re thinking about what our role looks like specifically as student journalists who have to cover this, but at the same time we have to go to class with those students tomorrow. (Shepherd Citation2019)

Reaction to the apology statement was swift and, in many cases, severe. Twitter user Vincent Caruso wrote,

This editorial is completely bananas. I find myself sympathetic to the author's regard for source anonymity, but the elasticity with which words like “harm,” “safe,” and “traumatizing” are used to justify a conscious turn away from standard journalistic practices is disturbing. (Caruso Citation2019)

Where the Crimson case generated about 35 original posts on Twitter, the Daily's apology prompted more than 650.

This reaction erupted in no small part because Northwestern is home to one of the strongest brands in journalism education: The Medill School of Journalism, Media, and Integrated Marketing Communications. While the Daily is completely independent of Medill and does not have a faculty adviser, Dean Charles Whitaker released a statement on the situation. In it, he first decried the pressure put on the Daily by activists, saying he also had been approached by them. “I am deeply troubled by the vicious bullying and badgering that the students responsible for that coverage have endured for the ‘sin’ of doing journalism,” Whitaker (Citation2019) wrote. He said he understood why the staff felt compelled to apologize because they were “beat into submission by the vitriol and relentless public shaming,” yet he said the move was wrong-headed and sends a “chilling message.” He wrote,

It suggests that we are not independent authors of the community narrative but are prone to bowing to the loudest and most influential voices in our orbit … our student journalists must be allowed—and must have the courage—to cover our community freely and unfettered by harassment each time members of the community feel they have been wronged.

Finally, Whitaker called on those responding negatively to the apology to “give the young people a break.”

Literature Review: Contexts and Controversies

Expression on Campus

Colleges and universities have long seen clashes between diversity, equity, and inclusion practices and free expression rights (Kors and Silverglate Citation1999). Beginning in the late 1980s, critics largely on the political right accused universities of abandoning their commitment to free intellectual debate by embracing “political correctness” (Bloom Citation1987).

More recently, controversies have arisen over disinviting and disrupting campus speakers, regulating campus protests, policing microaggressions, creating so-called “safe spaces,” and calling for discipline of students and faculty for both on-campus and off-campus speech (Campbell and Manning Citation2018). During the administration of former President Donald Trump, for example, many campuses faced increased calls from students to censor and punish expression on the political right on issues such as race and immigration, raising the need for universities to clarify and communicate public forum regulations and content neutrality principles dictated by the First Amendment (Patton Citation2017). In recent years, social media often flamed outraged rhetoric about these controversies on both sides of the political spectrum (Shepard and Culver Citation2018).

At the heart of many of these debates is the extent to which universities should protect students from hurtful expression. In the last generation, liberal principles of robust academic freedom have been challenged as sometimes incompatible with diversity, equity, and inclusion principles (Rauch Citation2013). Critical race theorists have called for greater regulation of expression to protect minorities from degrading and dehumanizing speech (Matsuda et al. Citation1993).

In recent years, academic leaders have examined the role of universities in these recent controversies, calling for a need to demonstrate commitment to both free expression values and diversity, equity, and inclusion practices. In Free Speech on Campus, Chemerinsky and Gillman (Citation2017) argue that a new generation of students values civility and anti-offense more than they value free expression rights, and as a result, university leaders have a responsibility to articulate and defend the values of free expression in an environment that increasingly favors censorship of ideas that some people deem offensive or hurtful (Chemerinsky and Gillman Citation2017). In a book by the same name, Ben-Porath (Citation2017) argues that “the liberal commitment to an open-minded atmosphere on campus” is under threat by efforts to limit debate and prevent expression of views some people believe are beyond the bounds of reasonable discussion. She argues universities adopt a framework of “inclusive freedom” that allows for “dignitary safety” of its participants but not necessarily their “intellectual safety.” And in Safe Spaces, Brave Spaces: Diversity and Free Expression in Education, Palfrey (Citation2017) examines the “case for diversity” against the case for “free expression” within the educational framework and in the context of what he sees as rising intolerance in society.

College Journalism

Student newspapers play an important and complex role in journalism education. At many colleges and universities, student newspapers provide a training laboratory where students learn “on the job” about the roles and responsibilities of journalists and also providing a forum for independent news and information about campus communities (Kanigel Citation2011). Students working at student newspapers embrace and learn from the independent editorial judgment they have in covering their campus communities (Gutsche and Salkin Citation2011). In some communities, student newspapers are filling the void left by the closure of professional newspapers (Levin Citation2019). Student participation in student media, including at the k-12 level, have been found to offer educational benefits for students, both in terms of their journalistic preparation but also more broadly with positive academic outcomes (Dvorak and Choi Citation2009). Beyond that, studies have found that student media serve to put into practice the principles of the First Amendment and the missions of both public and private educational institutions (Salkin Citation2022). Both universities and the press, embodied in this case by student newspapers, are two primary civic institutions “that help make our First Amendment freedoms, and public discourse itself, possible and meaningful” (Horwitz Citation2012).

Student newspapers provide students with opportunities to learn about journalism, including ethics, by practicing the craft. Student newspapers are not immune to criticism from different audiences for their work. Occasionally, student newspapers find themselves as proxies in these controversies, applying, articulating, and sometimes questioning traditional journalism ethics. Normative journalism ethics is the product of ongoing analysis and synthesis about best practices in the gathering and dissemination of information to the public. The Society of Professional Journalists states that its members “believe that public enlightenment is the forerunner of justice and the foundation of democracy,” and SPJ's Code of Ethics declares four principles as the foundation of ethical journalism: Seek Truth and Report It, Minimize Harm, Act Independently, and Be Accountable and Transparent (Society of Professional Journalists Citationn.d.). Kovach and Rosenstiel’s (Citation2014) book, The Elements of Journalism: What Newspeople Should Know and the Public Should Expect, examines the purposes of journalism and argues that journalists establish authority with readers through verification, independence, engagement, and providing a public forum. Journalism educators have debated whether the teaching of journalism ethics is preferable in stand-alone courses or embedded across the curriculum (Groshek and Conway Citation2013). Scholars suggest that linkage between professional workplaces and journalism classrooms is a continuing area in need of study (Hanson Citation2002).

The college newsroom is often an important site for examination of pedagogy and professional preparation (Bockino Citation2018). Recent studies of college journalism have examined motivations and roles of aspiring journalists, as well as student journalists’ conceptions of ethics. For example, one recent study of college journalists shows that students share the same beliefs as professionals when it comes to the main roles of journalism, including journalists’ roles as interpreter, investigator, disseminator, adversary, and populist motivator. However, today's students view journalists as needing to become more a part of the conversation with audiences and sources than did prior generations (Coleman et al. Citation2018; Culver and LoMonte Citation2021).

Coverage of campus protests—and the broader cultural and societal issues they raise—has long been a part of student newspaper coverage. Armstrong (Citation2017) traces student newspaper coverage of protests to the early days of the development of student newspapers in the 1800s.

Coverage of Race

Questions about and critiques of roles and responsibilities of journalists, including those at student newspapers, have been sharpened in recent years in the context of coverage of race, racism, and social justice. Following national protests over racial injustice in the summer of 2020, several newspapers, including the Los Angeles Times and the Kansas City Star, published extensive apologies for their poor records of supporting racial justice (Fannin Citation2020; Los Angeles Times Editorial Board Citation2020).

Scholars have studied journalism criticism from a variety of perspectives, including as a challenge to journalistic autonomy and authority. Carlson (Citation2017) argues that journalism is predicated on the belief that readers will believe news stories based in part on the sociotechnical construction of journalistic authority involving “an array of actors, organizational structures, communication technologies, and cultural practices.” Carlson and others have argued that maintaining and enhancing journalistic authority involves continuous effort through knowledge construction and discourse among individuals and institutions. Journalists have societal credibility because they often bear witness and accurately and fairly report what they see to the public through professional practices and conventions that enhance journalistic authority. Carlson argues that the theory of journalistic authority is based on three premises: many actors affect how news obtains authority, the relationships are contextual, and no single variable can explain news authority.

Journalistic practices in covering race have changed over time. González and Torres (Citation2011) book, News for All the People: The Epic Story of Race and the American Media, offers a sweeping historical tour of media coverage of race from colonial America through the modern age, finding that racial bias in media coverage reinforced racial ignorance, group hatred, and discriminatory government policies throughout American history. In her recent book, Reporting on Race in a Digital Era, Nielsen (Citation2020) explores the ways in which coverage of race in the United States has changed in recent years through analysis of three journalistic models, which she identifies as the “traditional journalism/representative liberal” model, the “interactive race beat journalism” model, and “Journalism 3.0.” Journalism 3.0 is based on the belief that unexamined assumptions about how discourse should be constructed has limited those who participate, and that there is not just one public square but multiple public squares that require a rethinking of community in the digital era. Nielsen identifies coverage of protests in Ferguson, Missouri, after the police shooting death of Michael Brown in 2014 as a turning point for the traditional journalism model, in which traditional news coverage of race issues shifted from mere events coverage to examinations of larger systems of power. This shift in news practices was prompted in part by new technology that enabled audiences to become part of the news narratives and speak back to news producers. Nielsen identified evidence in both textual analysis and interviews that modern journalism across her three models seeks to empower the audience, privileges voices of the marginalized, and leverages technology to determine the audience's agenda. Her research provides evidence that journalists, including those from traditional news organizations, are embracing the need to “boldly tell the story of the diversity and magnitude of the human experience” and “seek sources whose voices we seldom hear,” two additions in 2014 to SPJ's Code of Ethics.

Some recent studies have examined journalistic practices through the lens of marginalized communities and the Black Lives Matter movement. Kil (Citation2020) studied and critiqued news coverage of “All Lives Matter” commentary through the lens of critical race theory, calling for “increased color-conscious, intersectional news reporting.” Blackstone, Cowart, and Saunders (Citation2017) examined how social media posts influenced perceptions of the protests and riots in Ferguson, Missouri. Varma’s (Citation2020) study of journalists’ coverage of homelessness in San Francisco found that while journalists regularly demonstrate empathy toward the individuals they cover, a broader notion of solidarity with communities could create a more just society. Varma draws from Iyengar (Citation1990) to analogize concepts of journalistic empathy and solidarity with episodic and systemic framing. She advocates that journalistic solidarity embraces systemic framing of social justice issues with a focus on actions and solutions. She argues that journalists incorporate solidarity as a deliberative value through “radical inclusion” practices such as diverse sourcing, interviewing, and framing techniques. Usher (Citation2021) examines the crisis of modern journalism through issues of place, race, class, and politics, arguing that new models taking into account local geographic needs in broader social contexts may be more successful and healthier for democracy.

Research Questions

Drawing together these three strands of literature—campus expression, college journalism, and news coverage of race—this paper explores tensions between supporting free expression, particularly freedom of the college press, and advancing the goals of diversity, equity, and inclusion on university campuses. In comparing opinion journalism coverage of two campus controversies, it asks:

RQ1: How are First Amendment rights and values, concepts of journalism ethics, and matters of race evident or absent in this coverage?

RQ2: How are student journalists and student activists framed in this coverage?

RQ3: What does the coverage mean for reinforcing and challenging traditional notions of journalistic practices and ethics?

Comparative Case Analysis


This study analyzed 164 opinion pieces related to the Harvard and Northwestern cases, as well as primary source material, such as statements from the two papers and the Medill School dean. Stories were identified through keyword searching via the Lexis/Nexis database, ProQuest database, and Google Advanced Search. Searches were conducted for “Harvard Crimson” for the period 9/13/2019-9/13/2020 and for “Daily Northwestern” for the period 11/5/2019-11/5/2020. A coder reviewed all retrieved stories to remove duplicates and material not related to the protest cases. Stories were included regardless of whether they ran in print or on a news website. Stories broadcast on television or radio news were excluded if they did not run as text on the outlet's website. Duplicate versions of wire service stories were eliminated. Texts were assigned to a “news” category and eliminated from the analysis if they took a neutral reporting approach, even if they were published in an ideologically driven outlet, such as The Daily Caller, so the analysis focuses on opinion journalism. The research focused on opinion journalism to explore what news organizations and individual journalists argue ought to be the roles and practices of journalism and the appropriate responses to activist pressure. Beginning with a directed qualitative content analysis approach (Hsieh and Shannon Citation2005), this study coded the texts to examine three conceptual areas: First Amendment rights, values, and theories; journalistic practices and ethics; and race. The authors then conducted a conventional qualitative content analysis to discover themes that emerged in each of the conceptual areas (Lindlof and Taylor Citation2011).

Expressions of First Amendment Rights, Values and Theories

The corpus of opinion pieces on the Harvard Crimson case showed remarkable similarity in themes emerging related to First Amendment freedoms. The texts speak exclusively to the rights of a free press, rather than free speech, though many scholars argue the press clause of the First Amendment is more rightly understood to protect the press as a technology rather than an institution (Volokh Citation2011). They point to student journalists enjoying full free expression protection, even while situated at a private institution. And they speak to threats the petition posed to First Amendment rights.

This (Harvard Crimson) editorial is not about defending ICE – rather, it's about defending against chipping away at the First Amendment, an essential pillar of American democracy and the lifeblood of every newspaper. It's a fight against a misguided – and ultimately, dangerous – trend of intellectual censorship. (Gatepost Editorial Board Citation2019)

The First Amendment and press protections did not emerge strongly in the coverage of the Northwestern Daily's apology. Such concepts as the marketplace of ideas, heightened protection for speech related to self-governance, and a preferred position for free expression when it comes into conflict with other liberties were entirely absent from opinion coverage of both controversies.

Expressions of Journalism Practices and Ethics

Opinion coverage of the Crimson case focused far more on journalism practices and ethics than on matters of free speech and press rights, as would be expected when a conflict arises between journalists and activists, as opposed to journalists and government. Four primary themes arose in this arena: “standard” or “routine” practices, fairness, neutrality, and objectivity. Interestingly, some pieces staked a claim that the role of a free press in a democracy is “to deliver fair and unbiased reporting” (Heights Editorial Board Citation2019), apparently abandoning the contributions of opinion journalism and advocacy that characterized their own publications. In defending standard approaches, authors used such terms as “journalism 101” and “basic reporting” when referring to calling ICE for comment on the protest. They linked these approaches to the concepts of neutrality and objectivity. “Talking to people with a wide variety of viewpoints isn't some hidebound rule passed down from one generation of reporters to the next. It is essential to journalism” (Metzger Citation2019). Objectivity is ill-defined in the opinion pieces, often seemingly used as a default word. No piece included the myriad critiques of objectivity in journalism, such as its use as a “strategic ritual” (Tuchman Citation1972), its exclusive nature (Robinson and Culver Citation2016), or misconstruing it as the “view from nowhere” (Rosen Citation2010). Other themes inherent in journalism ethics—truth-telling, minimization of harm, independence, transparency, accountability, or serving as a public forum—did not emerge strongly in the content analysis of the opinion pieces on the Harvard case. Overall, the pieces showed strong support for the Crimson staff and leadership, both in their original decision-making on calling ICE for comment and on their full-throated defense of that call and the general practices that prompted it.

When the Northwestern Daily took its response to activists’ complaints in a different direction, the swift response overwhelmingly reinforced traditional practices and notions of objectivity. The Daily's apology resulted in more than 70 opinion pieces from news outlets and such advocacy groups as the National Rifle Association. Where opinion on the Harvard case purported to offer lessons on journalism routines to activists and other students, the Northwestern pieces most often took aim at the Daily's editors themselves, with one calling the piece, “a sniveling, embarrassing apology” (Soave Citation2019). Pieces reinforced what they framed as standard reporting practices, with such lines as, “Let's be clear. Contacting people involved in newsworthy events is just called reporting and it's absolutely appropriate” (Dallas Morning News Editorial Citation2019).

Harm to journalism and public understanding of current events and issues also was a common theme.

It's painfully stupid, but actually, it's so much more than that. It's harmful. See, a press that refused to report on uncomfortable subjects would not actually create a situation where uncomfortable, even terrible, things would no longer be happening. It would simply mean that we would all have wool pulled over our eyes about them. Absolutely no one should be arguing for a system aimed at increasing ignorance. (Timpf Citation2019)

Two pieces of the Northwestern opinion coverage challenged traditional notions of objectivity. One argued,

The orthodoxy of objectivity teaches us to block out the noise: But this approach has been revealed for the scam it is — a white, male, privileged, Western default worldview that doesn't center anyone who doesn't fit. This matters because the stories we tell become the world we are. (Douglas Citation2019)

Framing the Activists

The opinion pieces in both cases had strong themes related to the activists’ requests to divert from standard journalistic practices. One important theme was dismissiveness about questions of safety raised by the activists. In both cases, complaints to the student newspapers were coming from people who had protested publicly. Authors argued that demonstrators using their own expression rights in public spaces must face the consequences of those choices, including being identified through names or photographs in news coverage and called by reporters for follow-up. In the Harvard case, writers emphasized that a call to ICE for comment without using protesters’ names posed no threat at all of “tipping off” the agency, as the petition had claimed.

A small number of pieces, from conservative outlets, tied the activists to larger claims common in “culture war” controversies, such as labeling them the “social justice mob” and invoking buzz-word phrases, such as “political correctness” and “cancel culture.”

In the Northwestern case, activists’ calls received less attention than the Daily staff's decision-making and apology. A small number of pieces did call out the idea of wanting to be “safe” while protesting publicly.

America has a long tradition of nonviolent civil protest, and a cardinal component is that protesters grasp what they are getting themselves into. It sounds as if the Northwestern students wanted the passion and impact of public protests without the responsibility and personal sacrifice. (Register-Guard Opinion Citation2019)

Of the entire corpus analyzed, only one piece on the Northwestern case focused on the activists positively.

Student Newspapers, Community, and Trust-Building

Editor Troy Closson's note that student journalism operates in a unique space in which reporters routinely interact with the fellow students, faculty, staff, and administrators they cover arose as a theme repeatedly in the segment of the opinion coverage corpus that was published in student newspapers. Few of the mainstream outlets analyzed had this theme though a Washington Post commentator wrote:

Journalists by trade seem determined to see these debates as a threat to a static set of rules rather than an opportunity to reconsider whether those rules were as perfect as they’ve always assumed, or pretended. Maybe it's possible to be honest but to be sensitive at the same time, or to hold the powerful accountable and protect the powerless from extra injury, or to tell both sides of a story without suggesting no matter what that both sides have equal worth. This is hard work, and maybe it's less likely to finally be done in hardened newsrooms where layer upon institutional layer stands in the way of change than it is in places of higher learning where malleability is part of the point (Roberts Citation2019).

Just eight student publications archived in the databases searched editorialized on the Crimson case (all in support of the paper's stand) while more than 50 ran opinion pieces on the Northwestern case. While these did feature many of the same themes as the mainstream news coverage, the more dominant themes were supporting the Daily against criticism from other journalists and explanatory pieces about the nature of student journalism and the importance of learning while doing. “For many of us, this is our first contact with the world of reporting. We’re going to make mistakes, so rather than bash us on Twitter, I ask that you help us learn from them” (Panetta Citation2019). These pieces almost entirely opposed the Daily's decision but made clear that the backlash was overwrought, especially given that student journalists were at issue. “Errors in judgement deserve fair and honest criticism, but more than that, they deserve forgiveness” (DePaulia Editorial Board Citation2019).

Some of these explanatory pieces noted the unique character of student journalism. Decisions, they argued, are affected by reporters’ and editors’ proximity to the people they cover. They are situated within their community and thus answer directly to sources when they are concerned.

It's a different world for student journalists. At the end of the day, we are students too. We live and attend classes on the same campus that we are reporting on. We interact with students that we write about. It's an incredibly hard, often thankless and exhausting job. It puts us in a unique position. We must constantly be cognizant of our community and of the impact we have on students, editors and the university as a whole. Writing on a college campus should be taken on a case-by-case basis, since the reporters can't always separate themselves from the situations they are writing about (Clarke Citation2019).

A small number of pieces directly challenged the “standard practices” highlighted in much of the other opinion coverage, questioning whether it is time for reconsidering commonly accepted journalism ethics.

Another situated the controversy in racial terms, writing that she had been seeing the controversy through “a white lens” while the people hurt were from marginalized populations. She argues this must be taken into consideration when reasoning through decisions like the Daily made. “Just like language, journalism ethics are fluid and need to be treated as such. That doesn't mean rules shouldn't exist, but there should always be room for growth” (Cawley Citation2019).

Four pieces from two universities showed the particular tensions at issue in the Harvard and Northwestern cases. At Tufts University, the Editorial Board at the Tufts Daily newspaper initially defended the Crimson, noting,

Honesty and fact-based reporting in the face of violent government power is no easy task. At the Daily, we understand the fear of the government felt by the Crimson's critics, but we hope that they will understand that it is through honest coverage that journalists strive to promote a fair, free and informed society. (Tufts Daily Editorial Board Citation2019)

Two months later, however, the paper's Managing Board appended an apology to the piece.

The editorial, which was intended to affirm the Daily's commitment to journalistic practices, was not given the time and attention required for an editorial on a subject as sensitive as defending the undocumented community and Immigration and Customs Enforcement's role on a university campus. We owe an apology to the undocumented community and to the Tufts community for our negligence on this topic (Tufts Daily Managing Board Citation2020).

At the end of the 2019–2020 academic year, the Editorial Board at the Stanford Daily at Stanford University published a piece titled, “Ethical journalism for a new age.” In it, the board argued that college news outlets must re-examine traditional ethics codes and develop policies for covering protests. They emphasized the harm that can arise from such coverage and noted their dual missions of informing the public while minimizing that harm. The board offered a four-point plan: engage readership on what ethical journalism means; discuss consequences of coverage with sources before they participate; develop policies for capturing photographs that identify protesters; and engage in regular discussion of implicit bias.

Two days later, a lone dissenting member of the Editorial Board published his rebuttal, claiming the board was suggesting the Stanford Daily abandon its mission of “relevant, unbiased journalism.” He criticized student activists who, he argued, were threatening the paper's objectivity and demanding social justice approaches to journalism.

I call on my fellow board members, The Daily staff and both the current editor-in-chief and the editor-in-chief-elect to affirm a commitment to the First Amendment as the backbone of our newspaper and the standard of objectivity as the source of our readers’ trust. (Winograd Citation2020)

Conclusions and Recommendations

Four key conclusions arise from this analysis of opinion journalism related to the Harvard Crimson and Northwestern Daily responses to protesters. First, the responses to the two cases by mainstream outlets stand in stark contrast. When the Crimson approached its reaction to protesters with a defense of standard practices and traditional ethics, opinion writers stood strongly behind them. When the Daily questioned those practices and ethics and chose to apologize, opinion writers overwhelmingly chastised and critiqued them. The Daily staff was seen as undercutting the central values of a free press and inappropriately succumbing to pressure from activists. Almost none of the mainstream opinion coverage engaged directly with the reasoning the Daily staff provided. The corpus of opinion pieces from mainstream outlets almost universally demonstrates that student media that adhere to traditional principles will be supported while student media that challenge those principles will face backlash.

Second, the shallowness—and at times disdain—with which activists’ arguments were met was the same across both cases. If the activists’ point was that common journalistic practices fail to take seriously the claims of harm posed to marginalized communities, the opinion response proved that point. When harm arose as a concept in the mainstream opinion pieces, it was harm to journalism and a free press that was the concern, not harm to undocumented students or students of color. The activists were using their own rights to free expression to challenge journalism as an institution of power. Overwhelmingly, opinion writers appeared uninterested in engaging on these issues. This is not to say the activists’ demands should dictate coverage decisions. Independence remains a critical element in journalism ethics. But it is to say that the mainstream response to these cases embraced a view of journalism ethics as a closed system that resists accountability (Glasser and Ettema Citation2008; Ward and Wasserman Citation2010).

Third, the most notable difference between the student publication opinion corpus and the mainstream opinion corpus was the discussion of race and marginalization in the former and the absence of race in the latter, as well as the respect afforded to the activists in the student coverage. This appears to arise from the ways in which student journalists are uniquely situated within their campus communities. Their proximity to the people and issues affected by their coverage in turn affects that coverage. Critics of mainstream news outlets often complain that their remoteness from the communities they cover hardens them to the effects of their coverage (Robinson and Culver Citation2016). Students who live, study, and work in the community they cover demonstrate an ethic of care for that community, namely treating their subjects with dignity and respect.

Finally, the student news organizations’ willingness to engage with the activists’ demands presents an interesting case of testing the boundaries of journalism. As Carlson (Citation2015) notes,

Struggles over journalism are often struggles over boundaries. Basic questions of definition—who counts as a journalist, what counts as journalism, which is appropriate journalistic behavior, and what is deviant—are all matters that can be comprehended through the perspective of ‘boundary work.’ (Carlson Citation2015, 2)

Singer (Citation2015) notes that professional norms are used as devices to establish these boundaries. She writes:

In short, it appears that journalism's ideological commitment to control, rooted in an institutional instinct toward protecting legitimacy and boundaries, may be giving way to a hybrid logic of adaptability and openness: a willingness to see audiences more as peers, to appreciate their contributions, and to find normative purpose in transparency and participation. (Singer Citation2015, 32)

While Singer's study focused on social and entrepreneurial journalism, her arguments can be extended to student journalists in the comparative cases here. In removing photos of people protesting in a public place and apologizing for cold-calling demonstrators for comment, the Daily staff deviated from the norms of mainstream journalism, and mainstream opinion journalism reacted strongly to reinforce the boundaries. But in opening their practices to challenge and critique, these student journalists were engaging in transparent and participatory practices. They were pushing on the boundaries.

All this points to the need for more scholarship on the issues presented by these two cases and the responses to them. The present research examined opinion journalism and could be meaningfully augmented by a similar examination of news stories and the voluminous social media responses, particularly in the Northwestern case. Beyond that, scholars would do well to ask what public service is achieved by identifying protesters by name and photo, and if that public service is critical, whether the equation changes when marginalized populations are involved. Next, we need far more scholarship at the intersection of journalistic practices and race on campus, especially when controversies arise. Concepts such as Brown and Harlow's (Citation2019) hierarchy of social struggle should be meaningfully applied to campus contexts. Finally, future research and theorizing should continue to focus on untangling the false binary that campuses can be either robust arenas for free expression—including a free press—or they can be diverse and inclusive, but they cannot be both. Ultimately, the newspaper staffs in both cases here were using their freedoms to cover important issues in their communities. They were not seeking to undercut the safety and sense of belonging of undocumented students or students of color. Engaging with student journalists and student activists on the importance of both free expression and inclusion remains critically important in higher education.

Disclosure Statement

No potential conflict of interest was reported by the author(s).

Correction Statement

This article has been corrected with minor changes. These changes do not impact the academic content of the article.


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