When adults try to publicly shame college students online, nobody wins

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On Tuesday, novelist Sarah Dessen, who the New York Times has called a “best-seller machine,” got very upset that someone doesn’t like her books. When a fairly innocuous quote about Dessen appeared in a local news story out of Aberdeen, South Dakota, the author was all over it.

The article was about the 10th anniversary of Common Read at Northern State University and detailed the book selection process. (They’re picked by a volunteer committee made up of students, faculty, and community members.) One former committee member, Brooke Nelson, who volunteered her junior year of college, told the Aberdeen News she joined specifically to lobby against Dessen. “She’s fine for teen girls,” the 2017 Northern graduate said. “But definitely not up to the level of Common Read. So I became involved simply so I could stop them from ever choosing Sarah Dessen.”

The same day the article was published, Dessen tweeted a screenshot of the quote with Nelson’s name scratched out to her 268.4k followers. “Authors are real people. We put our heart and soul into the stories we write often because it is literally how we survive in this world. I’m having a really hard time right now and this is just mean and cruel. I hope it made you feel good,” she wrote. While the author tried obscuring Nelson’s identity, presumably so Dessen stans wouldn’t troll her, Googling the quote easily reveals her identity, Jezebel reported. The tweet got 8,600 likes and 725 retweets, with most followers just expressing their sympathies.

Things took a turn when other female authors began tweeting their support for Dessen. The conversation quickly changed from, “Sorry this author’s feelings were hurt,” to the assertion that Nelson was expressing an internal bias towards female writers. Novelist Jodi Picoult tweeted that the young woman’s opinion “implies something more sinister. This suggests stories about young women matter less. [...] That their concerns and hopes and fears are secondary or frivolous. This kind of thinking is what leads to gender discrimination in publishing.” That’s not the case with Common Read books, however. Out of the ten books picked for the program in the last decade, five are by women.

The backlash over such an innocuous detail in a feel-good culture story was ridiculous and a little reminiscent of another Twitter pile-on that happened this week. After Jeff Sessions spoke on Northwestern University’s campus, resulting in protesters clashing with police entering the building. Colin Boyle, a photographer for The Daily Northwestern, the college's student newspaper, captured the action and posted pictures of the protesters on his personal Twitter feed. One of his classmates, Ying Dai, saw a photo of herself and implored Boyle to take it down. “Colin please can we stop this trauma porn,” she tweeted.

Boyle deleted his photos before the end of the night, but soon after, the editors of The Daily Northwestern published a statement apologizing that one of its journalists had shared images of protesters on social media. The paper also apologized for using the school directory to contact students who’d been protesting Sessions.

By journalistic standards, Boyle and the student paper did nothing wrong. But after The Daily Northwestern issued its apology, there was uproar among the media establishment. High-profile journalists, many of them Northwestern alums, piled on criticism, incredulously attacking the students’ journalistic ethics and equating their blunder with the downfall of an entire profession.

The Washington Post’s Glenn Kessler tweeted, “How is it possible that a newspaper at what is allegedly a top journalism school would apologize for the basics of reporting? This is a travesty and an embarrassment.” The Chicago Tribune’s Gregory Pratt posted, “Being a journalist requires empathy, but this ain’t it.”

Maggie Haberman of The New York Times, who has come under fire in the last year herself for dubious journalistic practices, tweeted, “One of the biggest problems US journalists face in this day and age is how few people understand what standard news-gathering process looks like. A student newspaper saying normal process is somehow a bad thing is incredibly troubling.”

The Daily had an obligation to capture the event, both for the benefit of its current audience as well as for posterity,” Charles Whitaker, dean of Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism, said in a lengthy statement, as the debate raged online. He called the paper’s apology “heartfelt, though not well-considered,” and he condemned the “vicious bullying and badgering” of the student journalists. The Daily Northwestern operates independently of Northwestern and Medill.

Troy Closson, the paper’s editor in chief, addressed the controversy in a series of tweets. “We aren’t unclear about our rights as a newspaper to cover student protest, but also understand the need to do so with empathy,” he wrote. Closson noted that he’s one of only a handful of Black editors to run The Daily in its more than 135 year history, and with that distinction came unique challenges. “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.

Many in the industry also rushed to the students’ defense. “I’m more shocked at how angry folks seem to be, because while I wouldn’t have made that choice, I don’t think it’s wild to think about how reporting can impact the people we write about and how to mitigate it,” Tracie Hunte, a reporter for Radiolab, posted on Twitter.

The Washington Post’s Wesley Lowery tweeted, “One of only black students in history to hold his position, student journalist who makes incorrect decision based on sincere desire to not harm marginalized campus group is publicly decried by industry’s most powerful (white) journalists. Definitely a lesson to be learned here!”

These two recent examples of literary outrage are very different: in one scenario, a popular author complained to her fans that a random millennial wasn’t a fan of her work. In the other, a handful of college students made a well-intentioned journalistic blunder. What they both magnify is how lopsided cancel culture can be when you have powerful, influential people using their platform to dump on more vulnerable ones, when the little guy makes a mistake or has an opinion, as all humans do.

The issue boils down to punching up versus punching down. The Northwestern drama in particular could have been a teaching moment, but instead it became an industry-wide scandal. It may still spark important conversations about the overlap between social justice and journalistic standards. But unfortunately, instead of nourishing the next generation of writers and readers, the current standard bearers of the flailing media industry decided to yell at them.