Over the past several months, controversy over the Harvard Crimson’s journalistic practices has erupted on the Harvard University campus and in the national conversation. The source of the controversy is an article published by the Crimson on Sept. 22, covering a rally to abolish Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) held by activist group Act on a Dream. The Crimson reached out to an ICE spokesperson for comment following the event and included the statement “ICE did not immediately respond to a request for comment” in its coverage. Following publication, critics condemned the Crimson for requesting comment from ICE, suggesting that in doing so the newspaper was “tipping [ICE] off,” which the Crimson denied. Act on a Dream circulated a petition calling for a boycott of the Crimson and for campus organizations to refuse to comment until the paper alters its reporting standards and procedures.
The Crimson’s reporting standards mirror those of other esteemed student newspapers, and like the Crimson, at the Daily we strive for factual, fair and ethical journalism, which includes seeking comment from persons and organizations who are the subject of reporting. This editorial is not meant in any way to support ICE; given ICE’s practices and the fear and distress it causes in immigrant communities, it’s understandable that activists would have a strong reaction to the Crimson’s reaching out to ICE. Acknowledging this, we stand with the Crimson in defense of fact-based reporting, fair coverage and ethical journalistic practices.
If the grievances against the Crimson had been isolated to a petition circulated among several student organizations at Harvard, perhaps this editorial would be unnecessary. There will always be people who fundamentally misunderstand the purpose of the press, believing that reporting is meant to advance an agenda rather than the facts. That, however, was not the end of it; on Nov. 11, Harvard’s student government, the Undergraduate Council, passed a statement 15–13–4 in favor of Act on a Dream’s condemnation of the Crimson. That student government, activist organizations and campus political organizations would antagonize the press in a time when factual reporting and the truth are under attack across the nation is deeply troubling. Condemnation of basic journalistic practices will have a chilling effect on the press in multifarious ways.
Student newspapers serve the dual purpose of training the next generation of journalists and holding university and local power structures to account. Condemned by popular activist organizations, sanctioned by student government and boycotted by student organizations including the Harvard College Democrats, aspiring journalists will feel less comfortable pursuing the truth, reporting accurately and chasing a controversial story. Both the student and national press will be weaker for it.
Act on a Dream, the Harvard Democrats and other signatories of the boycott petition misunderstand their relationship with the press. The journalist is not the enemy of the activist. In fact, reporters are often essential in sharing activists’ messages, shedding light on advocacy and partnering to expose the truth. By refusing to comment and offer perspective on articles published about their organizations and issues they care deeply about, petitioners only undermine their own agendas and prohibit the dissemination of their messages.
Further, in condemning the Crimson, Harvard’s Undergraduate Council sets an unfortunate example for student government and undermines public trust in the institutions of the press. Harvard is the most well-known university in America. What happens at Harvard is covered in The New York Times and numerous other prominent news organizations. While Act on Dream and the Undergraduate Council pursue the honorable and correct mission of protecting undocumented immigrants, they must realize that their actions have significant ramifications. By undermining the free press and basic journalistic principles, they chip at the base of the pillar of the equitable democratic society they strive for.
The Crimson pursues a mission dedicated to the truth and to the facts, and boycotting the press does nothing but weaken these values. We’re glad that the Crimson has stood by its principles. Honesty and fact-based reporting in the face of violent government power is no easy task. At the Daily, we understand the fear of the government felt by the Crimson’s critics, but we hope that they will understand that it is through honest coverage that journalists strive to promote a fair, free and informed society.