Some students at Harvard don’t just want to abolish ICE. They also want to banish bedrock journalistic principles.
The effort is misguided on a number of fronts, and potentially counterproductive because the student activists’ big gripe was that their student newspaper drew too much attention to a protest. Since they ratcheted up their criticism with a public petition, the story has been covered by major outlets across the country.
Here are the basics: The Harvard Crimson covered a September rally calling for the abolition of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, one of the agencies carrying out President Trump’s crackdown on immigration. The reporters contacted ICE for comment, but didn’t hear back.
Revealing a fundamental misunderstanding of newsgathering and publishing, Act on a Dream, college Democrats, and other groups petitioned the Crimson to apologize for reaching out to the federal agency, claiming that asking ICE for comment is “virtually the same as tipping them off, regardless of how they are contacted.” The newspaper’s attempt to obtain the perspective of the agency in question “blatantly endangers undocumented students on our campus,” read the petition.
The criticism presumes that ICE might not have learned about the protest unless a spokesperson was contacted for comment. But, as Erik Wemple noted in the Washington Post, the petition doesn’t fault the newspaper for actually publishing an article about the protest or for quoting students by name.
The Crimson’s student leaders, Kristine Guillaume and Angela Fu, have stood behind their reporters, and clarified to readers that they didn’t provide ICE with the names of any of the protesters. They also waited until after the protest was over to seek comment.
There is a broader issue raised in the students’ petition, and it is a serious one. ICE has arrested many activists who are udocumented immigrants, and some suspect that is not coincidental, according to Vice News, which in an August article counted at least 20 such activists who had been arrested. It would be very concerning if ICE was basing its enforcement actions on people’s political speech, as opposed to legitimate issues for the federal government to focus on like safety and upholding the law.
Talking to people with a wide variety of viewpoints isn’t some hidebound rule passed down from one generation of reporters to the next. It is essential to journalism. It can safeguard the reporter from making factual errors, and it signals to readers that at least an effort was made to include all sides to a story. The student activists wouldn’t know much about what ICE has been up to if all reporters shunned speaking to anyone at the agency.
In the Crimson’s coverage of the controversy, Marion Davis, a former journalist who is now director of communications for the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition, lent credence to the position of the newspaper’s critics.
“I know the Crimson acted on a desire for fairness, but I have learned experience that getting both sides isn’t always what is fair, especially when one side has already made its views well known through the megaphones of government,” Davis told Crimson reporter Ruoqi Zhang. “And protecting vulnerable people is also an ethical imperative. First do no harm is the motto of the medical profession, but it has a place in journalism, too.”
Responding to an inquiry early Thursday morning, Davis clarified that she “never would advocate for a blanket no-ICE-contact policy,” and mentioned some alternatives to contacting ICE itself, such as using the agency’s earlier public statements or speaking with experts on the subject.
Civil liberties lawyer Harvey Silverglate says the protests against the Crimson are not something you’d expect from students at Harvard. “It’s something you’d expect from someone totally uneducated, but for these students to be questioning the way The Crimson has gone about its reporting is shocking and depressing,” he said.
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