What we can all learn from the situation at Northwestern

On Nov. 10, student journalists at The Daily Northwestern drew national attention and widespread criticism for apologizing for standard reporting practices that were well within the normal bounds of ethical journalism. Many within the media world were alarmed to see student journalists buckling under public pressure from a misinformed readership, instead of standing by their work. 

The story has been covered extensively nationally including by the New York TimesWashington Post and LA Times

Here's SPLC's take on the situation, from Executive Director Hadar Harris:

"We at SPLC trust student journalists to make their own editorial decisions and believe in the importance of maintaining a free and independent student media. Sometimes that results in hard lessons learned publicly, as was the case with The Daily Northwestern.

The Daily Northwestern's actions need to be understood in the context of a complicated confluence of pressures which social media exacerbates in this era of political polarization and attacks on press freedom. Student journalists are grappling with increased pressures as they fill in news deserts formed by shrinking local media at the same time that resources and support for student media are declining at the high school level. And of course the culture of censorship and silence in high schools created by the Hazelwood decision leads to more uncertainty and less experience in college newsrooms.

The events at Northwestern have opened up an important dialogue about the duties and responsibilities of journalists and the need to give student journalists opportunities to learn — even if it is the hard way. We appreciate the open dialogue that The Daily Northwestern Editor-in-Chief Troy Closson has managed on Twitter, and are also very pleased to see the Dean of the Medill School of Journalism, Charles Whitaker, make a very strong statement in support of his students, while acknowledging the mistake they made.

SPLC supports students, and we support student journalists learning from their mistakes. The SPLC legal hotline has been around since our founding in 1974 to provide support, advice and training to student journalists across the country. We encourage you to contact the hotline whenever hard questions arise."
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Q: Does FERPA prevent me from reporting on a fight that took place on my campus between two students?

A: No. FERPA punishes schools that have a policy or practice of disclosing a student's education records without the permission of the student. First of all, the mere fact that a fight happened at your school is not something that can reasonably be considered an education record. If students were disciplined and those records went into particular students’ files, that may be considered an education record that you would likely not get access to, but reporting on the fact that a fight happened in general is fair game. You can interview witnesses, ask school officials for a statement, and any of the other things you’d do in the normal course of reporting on an event. 

Additionally, a student journalist cannot violate FERPA in the first place because student journalists are not employees of the school. The law applies only to school employees or their agents, not student-generated news pieces. 

See previous Ask SPLC answers

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