Harvard’s stu­dent news­pa­per is un­der fire for prac­tic­ing jour­nal­ism

Lodi News-Sentinel - - OPINION - Michael McGough is the Los An­ge­les Times’ se­nior ed­i­to­rial writer, based in Wash­ing­ton, D.C.

The Foun­da­tion for In­di­vid­ual Rights in Ed­u­ca­tion, which mon­i­tors threats to free ex­pres­sion and due process on col­lege cam­puses, also keeps track of threats to stu­dent news­pa­pers. On its web­site, FIRE lists seven warn­ing signs of cen­sor­ship of col­lege pa­pers, in­clud­ing ef­forts by col­lege ad­min­is­tra­tors to med­dle with ed­i­to­rial de­ci­sions, with­drawal of fund­ing and the theft and de­struc­tion of copies of print edi­tions.

Yet few of th­ese con­tro­ver­sies in­volve crit­i­cism of a stu­dent news­pa­per for fol­low­ing ac­cepted jour­nal­is­tic prac­tice, such as seek­ing com­ment from both sides of a con­tro­versy. But that is how the Harvard Crim­son got it­self into trou­ble re­cently with some stu­dent ac­tivists who seemed to have a rudi­men­tary un­der­stand­ing of how jour­nal­ism works.

After a Sept. 12 cam­pus demon­stra­tion call­ing for the abo­li­tion of U.S. Im­mi­gra­tion and Cus­toms En­force­ment, the Crim­son con­tacted the agency for com­ment for its news story. ICE didn’t re­spond to the re­quest. It’s not clear how much a state­ment from ICE would have added to the story. Pre­sum­ably a spokesper­son would have dis­puted the no­tion that the agency should be abol­ished. Maybe he or she also would have ques­tioned the con­nec­tion one of the speak­ers at the rally made be­tween ICE and the suf­fer­ing of the Pales­tini­ans.

Still, ask­ing ICE for a com­ment was Jour­nal­ism 101. But not in the eyes of Act on a Dream, the or­ga­ni­za­tion that or­ga­nized the anti-ICE protest.

The group cir­cu­lated a pe­ti­tion, sup­ported by other groups in­clud­ing Harvard Col­lege Democrats, de­mand­ing that the Crim­son “apol­o­gize for the harm they in­flicted on the un­doc­u­mented com­mu­nity; crit­i­cally en­gage with and change their poli­cies that re­quire call­ing ICE for com­ment; (and) de­clare their com­mit­ment to pro­tect­ing un­doc­u­mented stu­dents on cam­pus.” The pe­ti­tion has re­ceived more than 600 sig­na­tures.

In re­sponse, the Crim­son’s edi­tors pub­lished an ad­mirably even-tem­pered ex­pla­na­tion of its pol­icy:

“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.”

Re­spond­ing to the al­le­ga­tion that, by con­tact­ing ICE, the news­pa­per had some­how en­dan­gered un­doc­u­mented stu­dents, the edi­tors pointed out that those Crim­son re­porters didn’t share with ICE’s me­dia re­la­tions depart­ment any in­for­ma­tion about the names or im­mi­gra­tion sta­tus of stu­dents in­volved in the protest, which had con­cluded by the time the news­pa­per con­tacted ICE. (Act on a Dream con­tends that “a re­quest for com­ment is vir­tu­ally the same as tip­ping them off,” which makes no sense. You could just as eas­ily ar­gue that cov­er­ing the protest was a “tipoff.")

It’s im­por­tant not to over­state the sig­nif­i­cance of this in­ci­dent, which is re­ceiv­ing so much me­dia at­ten­tion (in­clud­ing an ed­i­to­rial and col­umn at the Wash­ing­ton Post) be­cause it oc­curred at Harvard, the alma mater of a lot of jour­nal­ists at ma­jor news­pa­pers. It would be equally, or per­haps more, ob­jec­tion­able if a stu­dent news­pa­per at a large state uni­ver­sity were at­tacked for try­ing to be thor­ough in its re­port­ing.

All the same, the cam­paign against the Crim­son is dis­may­ing. And although the tar­get here is stan­dard re­port­ing prac­tice, rather than the ex­pres­sion of opin­ion, the rhetoric about “harm” to un­doc­u­mented stu­dents is rem­i­nis­cent of jus­ti­fi­ca­tions for the sup­pres­sion of opin­ions that some stu­dents might find of­fen­sive.

The Act on a Dream pe­ti­tion ac­cused the Crim­son not only of tip­ping ICE off, but also of dis­play­ing “cul­tural in­sen­si­tiv­ity” by reach­ing out to an agency “with a long his­tory of surveillin­g and re­tal­i­at­ing against those who speak out against them.” In other words, the “harm” was psy­cho­log­i­cal. Greg Lukianoff of the Foun­da­tion for In­di­vid­ual Rights in Ed­u­ca­tion and psy­chol­o­gist Jonathan Haidt have writ­ten that the move­ment to spare stu­dents from such dam­age “pre­sumes an ex­tra­or­di­nary fragility of the col­le­giate psy­che.”

We know such an ex­pan­sive def­i­ni­tion of “harm” can un­der­mine free­dom of speech. The at­tack on the Crim­son sug­gests that it’s also bad news for jour­nal­ism.

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