Classroom Connection: Harvard journalism backlash
Fairness is one of the bedrock principles of quality journalism. The code of ethics of the Society of Professional Journalists calls on reporters to “diligently seek subjects of news coverage to allow them to respond to criticism or allegations of wrongdoing.” But that practice has raised concerns for the more than 700 people who have signed a petition calling on The Harvard Crimson, the student-run daily newspaper at Harvard College, to stop contacting U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) for comment when the agency is mentioned in the Crimson’s reports.
The controversy stemmed from the Crimson’s coverage of a Sept. 12 on-campus protest calling for the agency’s abolition. The report included the sentence “ICE did not immediately respond to a request for comment Thursday night.”
That language, variations of which are often found in news reports, is a sign of transparency, demonstrating to readers that the reporters have done their due diligence to give individuals and institutions mentioned prominently in their articles a chance to respond, particularly if those individuals and institutions are being criticized.
Three days after the article was published, Act on a Dream — the student immigration advocacy group that organized the protest — criticized the Crimson on social media. On Oct. 11, several days after Crimson editors met with protest organizers to explain the journalism principles behind the request for comment, Act on a Dream started a Change.org petition. It condemns the Crimson’s decision to contact ICE, arguing that doing so showed “cultural insensitivity” and “blatantly endangers undocumented students on our campus.” In addition, it demands that the publication apologize, change its policies that require calling ICE for comment, and protect undocumented students.
Last Tuesday, in a “note to readers,” the Crimson’s president, Kristine Guillaume, and managing editor, Angela Fu, defended the decision to contact ICE for a statement. In keeping with the Crimson’s policies, they said, the request was made after the protest ended, but before the report on the event was published. They also said that no names or immigration statuses of those participating in the protest were given to ICE, nor was the agency told about the demonstration in advance. “We seek to follow a commonly accepted set of journalistic standards, similar to those followed by professional news organizations big and small,” Guillaume and Fu wrote.
- “Harvard Crimson’s ICE controversy shows the perils of reporting neutrally on liberal campuses” (Girisha Arora, NBC News)
- “Harvard Crimson pressured by immigration activists to bail on journalism” (Erik Wemple, The Washington Post)
Discuss: What factors make a piece of journalism “fair”? How is fairness connected to credibility? Do you think these student journalists were correct to give ICE a chance to comment? Why or why not? Should the Crimson make any of the policy changes the petitioners are demanding? What questions might arise about the Crimson if its reporters did not try to contact ICE? What about other reporting involving other authorities, such as local or campus police? What would it say about the Crimson’s credibility as a news source if it stopped this widely accepted practice?
Idea: Have students read and review the standards listed in the Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics, which was cited in the Crimson’s note to readers. Then ask students to identify which principles of the code were relevant in this case, and whether they would recommend any changes to the code.