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The crime of committing journalism exposes dangerous trend

The Harvard Crimson, the university’s student-run newspaper, is facing campus backlash after requesting comment from Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials for an article on a campus protest against the agency.

Eleven student groups, including the Harvard College Democrats, signed a petition accusing the Harvard Crimson of showing cultural insensitivity for even contacting the government agency.

Northwestern University’s student newspaper — a product of an acknowledged elite journalism program — published an editorial apologizing for “mistakes” made while covering protests of former attorney general Jeff Sessions’ visit to campus Nov. 5.

The “mistakes”?

The newspaper tweeted out photos of students protesting Sessions and used the campus phone directory to call some of those demonstrators for interviews.

Both student newspapers were guilty of the crime of committing journalism.

You won’t find this listed among criminal law statutes. It’s a relatively new offense.

But it’s catching on.

And that’s dangerous.

The scary part of these two developments is that they involve student journalists at top schools — the future of our profession, key players in the journalism product you will consume in the future.

And they are apologizing for interviewing people who participated in an event/protest?

They are facing backlash — and seemingly bowing to it — for daring to get the other side of the story about an agency being protested?

Good journalism — what you are seeking — involves honest reporting and editing and delivery of news without opinion or bias. It sounds boring. But when any of that is lacking, you are being shortchanged.

Of course there is room for opinion on any media platform. And there is some informed commentary that is going on today. And it is important. But it needs to be clearly labeled. Too often today, opinion is showing up on the front page or the “newscast” while objective reporting and hard information are relegated to a background role.

The University of North Carolina journalism school, which is considered one of the nation’s best, recently announced a renewed emphasis on the core values of journalism.

That was heartening to hear for this 1975 graduate of that school of journalism. For many of the past 45 years, I have been wondering if they were still teaching the profession the way they taught it in 1975.

Dr. Richard Cole and Dr. Walter Spearman did not push a political agenda with their instruction. I have no idea what their thoughts were on anything political.

Instead, they supplied a granite journalism foundation of objectivity, fairness, balance and letting the story be the star. They did it so well that even a mediocre student like yours truly could come away with an effective educational experience and use it to fuel a 45-year career.

In most surveys today, the media ranks about the same or below the lawmakers they cover in terms of trust.

That’s our fault. Why should readers trust us if stories on the front page are full of agenda-pushing rather than balanced reporting of information? While I can personally attest that the Sun-Gazette has always emphasized objectivity and balance, many of the largest newspapers with a national following are regularly guilty of knowingly abusing journalism principles.

Why should viewers trust us when what is labeled a newscast is peppered with persuasion rather than even delivery and content in every other sentence or video clip?

Walter Cronkite, the CBS nightly news icon, was regarded as “the most trusted man in America.” Cronkite, it turns out, was quite liberal, like many of today’s deliverers of the nightly news. The difference is, his balanced content and even delivery in every instance gave no indication of political leanings.

The future professional journalists at Harvard and Northwestern and the rest of the communications schools need to know that readers, listeners and viewers are not dumb. If they pick up a newspaper and see opinion on a front-page story where they came for information, they will notice. If they tune in to a newscast and feel a political shakedown instead, they will notice.

And if that keeps happening, they eventually will skip the exercise entirely and get their “news” from Facebook or Twitter.

The next generation of journalists roaming our college campuses today don’t need to apologize for practicing correct communications. They need to wear it like a badge of honor.

And then they need to do their best to restore the foundations of our profession.

David F. Troisi is retired as editor of the Sun-Gazette.

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