Verbum Ultimum: What's the Matter with Harvard?

Recent attacks on student journalism are unfounded and potentially dangerous.

by The Dartmouth Editorial Board | 11/15/19 2:15am

The freedom of the press was defeated on a 15-13-4 vote earlier this week in a meeting of Harvard University’s Undergraduate Council, its student government body. 

Perhaps not that literally — but the resolution that did pass on Sunday, which indirectly criticized the student newspaper, The Harvard Crimson, for reporting on a campus protest and writing the news following standard journalistic protocols — represents a growing misconception of the role of the press in a free society. The recent developments at Harvard, as at other places, should be a matter of serious concern for those who value a rigorous free press — especially on college campuses.

In mid-September, around 100 Harvard students, organized by a student-led immigration advocacy group called Act on a Dream, held a protest calling for the abolition of the federal agency Immigrations and Customs Enforcement. The next day, The Crimson published a story covering the protest, which in its tone generally offered an objective, if sometimes even positive, view of the protests. 

Under the standard journalistic procedure of seeking comment from people or organizations being criticized in a news article, The Crimson’s reporters reached out to ICE after the event for comment on the story. However, the agency did not immediately reply to the request, which The Crimson noted with one line in the article.

Weeks after the article’s publication, Act on a Dream began circulating an online petition accusing The Crimson of “cultural insensitivity” for reaching out to ICE for comment and criticizing the paper for “their decision to uphold a policy that blatantly endangers undocumented students on our campus.” The petition has since garnered just over 1,000 signatures and is co-signed by several campus groups, including the Harvard College Democrats.

The Crimson’s president, Kristine Guillaume, rightly wrote in a statement that the paper was upholding “fundamental journalistic values” which require reporters to reach out to people and organizations for comment “in order to ensure a fair and unbiased story.”

This message was apparently lost on Harvard’s Undergraduate Council, whose resolution that passed earlier this week (almost two months after the protest itself) essentially endorsed the petition and called on The Crimson to change its policies.

The resolution was not necessarily a direct attack on The Crimson — its authors were careful to note that “we understand that upholding journalistic standards within the Crimson is vital.” But concerningly, the resolution implies that The Crimson used practices that “put students at risk,” and “encourage[s] the Harvard Crimson to revisit their policies and make adequate changes.”

This editorial board sympathizes with the concerns about the safety of undocumented students expressed in both the petition and the resolution. We understand that there is a very justified fear of ICE in marginalized communities — particularly among undocumented students at college campuses who live in constant fear of deportation. 

However, it is less clear whether people were put in active danger by The Crimson’s decision to simply reach out to ICE for comment after the protest. Journalists must always consider the safety of their subjects and audience when writing stories. But it is unclear how reaching out to a government agency after a protest (and not even receiving a comment) put anyone in danger. 

This resolution demonstrates a growing misconception about the nature of a free press, especially on college campuses. Calling on The Crimson to change its practices sounds very much like an attempt at censorship by a governmental institution against a newspaper — a concern expressed by some members of the Undergraduate Council, including its vice president, in The Crimson’s article covering the resolution’s passage.

Just as troubling is the fact that several campus groups, including the Harvard Democrats, have instructed members not to speak to Crimson reporters unless the paper changes its policies. Imagine that — the Harvard Democrats, the official organization of the Democratic Party at Harvard, telling members not to talk to journalists when the leaders of the Democratic Party have consistently (and rightly) criticized President Trump for his attacks on journalists and the free press.

We raise these concerns because in an era of newsroom closures, layoffs across the journalism industry and the fire breathing of a petty president, student journalists have, too, been under fire. 

Just this week, in the face of enormous peer pressure, student journalists at Northwestern University, home of one of the best journalism schools in the country, felt the need to apologize for a standard news article covering a visit by former U.S. attorney general Jeff Sessions. Specifically, the editors of The Daily Northwestern wrote to readers expressing regret for using the university’s directory to look up contact information to solicit interviews from students, and for taking pictures of protestors in public — both of which are staples of news-gathering.

Freedom of the press is essential to a vibrant and open society. The same constitutional doctrine that gives student protestors the right to protest a government agency also gives student journalists the right to report on the protest and reach out to the government agency for comment.

But beyond this basic right, journalists also must seek to uphold the highest standards of news reporting, which includes telling all sides of a story that exist. The Dartmouth’s Ethics Code, which all staff members of this newspaper must sign and pledge to abide by, specifically obligates news reporters to seek comment from someone who is criticized in a story.  

If there is any good that has come out of these incidents, however, it is that they have given student and professional journalists the chance to reflect on long-standing news-gathering practices. Now more than ever, people are raising questions about the balance between the duty to report and respecting the lived experiences of those who will be affected most directly by our reporting — and these kinds of questions are legitimate ones to be asking. The suggestion that a newspaper puts people in danger by reaching out for comment reflects these ongoing questions. 

Yet to be clear, it is ultimately the obligation of journalists to tell the news as it is and to avoid making value judgments in the course of reporting. In calling for The Crimson to change this standard upheld by every news organization, Harvard’s Undergraduate Council has not merely posed the threat of censorship, but has asked the professionals at The Crimson to violate the fundamentals of journalism for which they stand. 

The editorial board consists of the opinion editors, the executive editor and the editor-in-chief.