The venerable Harvard Crimson, the 146-year-old student newspaper of the highly regarded Ivy League school, committed a random act of journalism recently. And, boy, are university students mad about it.
The newspaper staff covered a Boston area rally last month by the group Act on a Dream and its demands that Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) be abolished, and then reached out to ICE for a comment on the rally.
Providing balance and fairness is what a properly trained reporter is tasked to do when covering an event or an issue. Such balance is not always available — or even balanced — but sound journalism requires a diligent effort be made at such.
As it turned out, ICE officials did not immediately respond to the reporter for the story, titled "Harvard Affiliates Rally for Abolish ICE Movement," but the reporters dutifully reported that to the newspaper's readers. The Times Free Press often does the same thing when a source does not return calls or emails or other attempts for comment in time for publication.
And the Crimson's mere attempt is what set off the firestorm.
Act on a Dream representatives accused the newspaper of threatening the welfare of Harvard students with its effort to contact ICE, and 650 people quickly signed an online petition condemning the newspaper for seeking a comment from ICE. Ten additional groups joined the protest and have launched a boycott of the paper.
"In this political climate," the petition reads, "a request for comment is virtually the same as tipping [ICE] off, regardless of how they are contacted. 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."
The petition also demands the newspaper not only change its policies but also "apologize" for "the harm they inflicted" on undocumented students, and declare a commitment to protecting undocumented students on campus."
One might think anyone accepted as an undergraduate student at Harvard would have a minimal understanding of journalism and newspapers, but when social media and comedy shows are one's main source of information, that minimal understanding may be missing.
And stretching our imaginations to give them the benefit of the doubt, some petitioners might have imagined the Crimson's call to ICE was an attempt to report illegal immigrants to the agency and not to solicit a comment from it.
However, seeking comment from ICE was in general a stab at at fairness, and fairness is an alien concept amid the rampant intolerance at many colleges, especially including far left-wing Harvard.
Curiously, it never occurred to those upset with the Crimson that had the newspaper chosen to write a completely one-sided version of events, it would no less be informing the public that the event had transpired than if the ICE comment were added.
Fortunately, the paper stuck to its guns, saying in an editorial by president Kristine Guillaume and managing editor Angela Fu that at stake "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."
The newspaper also checked with and found it had the backing of the Student Press Law Center and the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ) in determining whether it had done the right thing. Indeed, the SPJ Code of Ethics states reporters should "diligently seek subjects of news coverage to allow them to respond to criticisms or allegations of wrongdoing."
Two Crimson staff members disagreed, perhaps having not steeped themselves in their Journalism 101 class.
One, Emily Romero, an associate editorial editor who admits she is undocumented, tweeted her support of the protests and wrote that "it pains me to feel unsafe in the building I have devoted countless hours to."
The other, Jessenia Class, tweeted that the paper's decision to continue reaching out to the subjects of stories for comment was disappointing and "antithetical to our journalistic values of reporting with sensitivity."
Notwithstanding someone's desire for a safe space and another's desire for "reporting with sensitivity," the Crimson editors wrote plainly that "our mission is facts, truth, narrative, and understanding."
Courageous words these days.
In a higher education world that is increasingly pulling back on the concept of free speech and the expression of unpopular opinions, the Crimson's unflinching stance — less a pushback against that trend and more an adherence to journalism standards — was a breath of fresh air. We hope it is repeated elsewhere.