Student journalists at Harvard University recently provided a master class in responding to unwarranted criticism and calls to boycott the school newspaper.
Several weeks ago, the Harvard Crimson covered a student protest that advocated for the abolishment of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, also known as ICE. And according to the student group that organized the protest, the Crimson demonstrated “cultural insensitivity” by — wait for it — reaching out to ICE for comment.
“In this political climate, a request for comment is virtually the same as tipping [ICE] off, regardless of how they are contacted,” reads the petition from student group Act on a Dream, which was signed by other student groups including the Harvard College Democrats. “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.”
This criticism woefully misses the mark, on several fronts. First, practically speaking, the Crimson leadership says the request for a comment from ICE came, per paper policy, after the protest happened. So in no way would that amount to some sort of tip off. And, perhaps more importantly, the paper has a responsibility to uphold journalistic standards and seek information and reaction from all relevant parties, especially when one of those parties is the subject of a protest or criticism. That’s exactly what the Crimson did here.
In an impressive display of both resolve and openness, the Crimson’s president and managing editor, who are students, explained and stood by their decision in a note to readers.
“The Crimson exists because of a belief that an uninformed campus would be a poorer one — that our readers have the right to be informed about the place where they live, work, and study,” President Kristine Guillaume and Managing Editor Angela Fu wrote in the note. “In pursuit of that goal, we seek to follow a commonly accepted set of journalistic standards, similar to those followed by professional news organizations big and small.”
As the student journalists rightly point out, providing story subjects an opportunity to respond to criticism or allegations directed toward them from other people is a fundamental part of reporting the news. Journalists also have a responsibility to consider the ramifications of that back and forth — and the ramifications of the story overall (the Crimson’s existing policy to not ask the subject of a protest for a response until after the event is a clear recognition of that fact). But ultimately, those considerations do not supersede a basic notion of fairness.
“Foremost among those standards is the belief that every party named in a story has a right to comment or contest criticism leveled against them. That’s why our reporters always make every effort to contact the individuals and institutions we write about — administrators, students, alumni, campus organizations, and yes, government agencies — before any story goes to press,” Guillaume and Fu continued. “We believe that this is the best way to ensure the integrity, fairness, and accuracy of our reporting.”
The note to readers also explains how Crimson leadership met with members of Act on a Dream after the protest to hear their concerns about the story, and to share the paper’s perspective on this issue. Following that dialogue, Act on a Dream and others started the online petition calling on the paper to apologize, to change existing policies that would compel them to call ICE for a comment, and to committ to protecting undocumented students on the Harvard campus. The petition now has more than 700 signatures.
We don’t think the Crimson should be making any apologies or commitments. They are standing up for long-held, important journalistic principles. And they’re doing it very well.
“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,” Guillaume and Fu wrote. “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.”