The Harvard Crimson, the student newspaper at the famed Ivy League school, found itself getting screamed at this week, due to its reporting on a protest against Immigration and Customs Enforcement. The newspaper wrote in its Sept. 13 edition about an event on campus, in which people assembled to speak out against the actions of ICE and to call for the dissolution of the agency.
The Crimson reporters did what any good journalists would do: They covered the event that was relevant, useful and interesting in their geographic area. They quoted sources and observed actions for inclusion in the paper. They then decided to ask for comment from “the other side.” The result, as anyone who ever contacted a governmental agency would expect, was a simple line in the story: “ICE did not immediately respond to a request for comment Thursday night.”
This is where everything went to hell in a speedboat:
Act on a Dream, the campus group that had organized the rally covered in the article, started an online petition demanding that The Crimson vow to never contact ICE again and to apologize for the “harm it has inflicted.”
“We are extremely disappointed in the cultural insensitivity displayed by The Crimson’s policy to reach out to ICE, a government agency with a long history of surveilling and retaliating against those who speak out against them,” the petition read.
It continued: “In this political climate, a request for comment is virtually the same as tipping them off, regardless of how they are contacted.”
From a personal standpoint, I had a few quibbles with this:
- I’d like some evidence to support the “harm it has inflicted” statement, including a quantification of that harm. It’s easy to say that something will be harmful to people if it’s something we don’t like. (Look at every discussion involving books people want to ban, porn people want to suppress and Jean-Claude Van Damme movies.) However, in journalism require facts to make statements.
- Political climates almost always suck for at least half of the people in the country. It was problematic for people in the 1950s during the HUAC trials, the 1960s (and more) during the Civil Rights movement, the 1970s during the Vietnam/Watergate mess and even into the 2000s when terrorism hit home and we were a mess of surveillance and jingoism. If you waited until things were “cool” to do journalism, you’re waiting on the corner for a bus that had its route cancelled last month.
- Absolutism is awesome when you’re protesting things, not so much when you live on Planet Reality. Play this out: The Crimson agrees to NEVER contact ICE again. ICE does something pathologically insanely crappy to someone on Harvard’s campus. The campus community is desperate to know what happened. The Crimson responds: “Nope. Sorry. We did a pinky swear we’d never contact ICE.” Gimme a break.
For its part, the Crimson has stood by its reporting, issuing a note that explained why it contacted ICE, as well as what it did not do:
Let us be clear: In The Crimson’s communication with ICE’s media office, the reporters did not provide the names or immigration statuses of any individual at the protest. We did not give ICE forewarning of the protest, nor did we seek to interfere with the protest as it was occurring. Indeed, it is The Crimson’s practice to wait until a protest concludes before asking for comment from the target of the protest — a rule which was followed here. The Crimson’s outreach to ICE only consisted of public information and a broad summary of protestors’ criticisms. As noted in the story, ICE did not respond to a request for comment.
Still, the petition continues to add signatures and media coverage continues to grow around this issue, so let’s unpack a few basic journalistic issues here:
Calling the KKK wasn’t fun, either: Journalists often get chided for trying to get “both sides” of stories in which two sides don’t really exist. If the entire scientific community declares there’s no life on Neptune, we immediately feel compelled to call the guy who lives in his parents’ basement, wears a tinfoil hat and blogs at “NeptuneLifeCoverUp.com” to “balance” the story.
That’s not this.
Regardless of your personal feelings on an issue, when a group, an organization or a person is at the center of your coverage, you should reach out to that “side” and offer a chance to enter the conversation. I remember having to talk to a guy who swore he was the “Grand Dragon” of the KKK in Wisconsin because he announced the Klan would be holding a march on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. Groups that clearly did not want this to happen were all over this, talking to me about why this was a bad idea and what they planned to do if this occurred.
The march was to take place at the steps of the Capitol and for him to do that, he needed a permit. My goal was to find out if he got the permit and, if not, if he was ready to be removed and arrested. I had to spend something like 45 minutes on the phone with him as he kept rambling about his philosophy on race, issuing “scientific proclamations” about race and using language that just made my whole body cringe. In the end, he didn’t get the permit, the thing didn’t happen and the story ran with minimal contributions from him.
Some people were ticked off that I used the guy, but that’s the way journalism is supposed to work: If you have skin in the game, you get a chance to say something. If you don’t do this for everybody, you’re pretty much worthless as a reporter. The sheer volume of people we talk to on a daily basis that do things we dislike or don’t agree with could stun a team of oxen in its tracks.
The Taco Bell Shooting Theory is at work here: I’ve explained this one before: I got a call from a mother screaming up a blue streak about how our student newspaper’s coverage made her son “look bad.” The son, an adult, had engaged in a shoot-out at a Taco Bell drive-thru and was arrested for his part in swapping lead with other patrons.
The point I kept trying to make to her, when I could get a word in edgewise, was that it wasn’t the COVERAGE that made the kid look bad, but rather the SHOOTING he was involved in that made him look bad.
I kept thinking about this when I was reading the story about the protest and about the way in which the people upset with the Crimson reacted to the request for comment. The folks here gathered a couple hundred people in the middle of one of the most well-known colleges in the country and used megaphones to express their displeasure with a government agency they purport surveils them at all times, in front of people who at any moment could call the cops or post images to social media during the event with impunity but it was an UNANSWERED PHONE CALL after the fact from a student media operation that created risk?
How, exactly, does that logically track?
I understand that there are huge risks associated with immigration in today’s political climate, but getting all over the Crimson because it requested a comment from ICE makes as much sense as blaming school shootings on “all that music kids today listen to.”
Flip the coin and see how you like it: The phrase, “How would you like it if we did that to you?” seems rather childish, but it fits this situation quite well. Journalism, when practiced properly, is about keeping yourself out of the story, remaining as objectively neutral as reality will allow and giving your readers the sense that you are telling them something honest and valuable.
The minute we stop doing that is the minute we become no better than the demagogues of our society who use their pulpits to rain hatred upon others for personal gain.
OK, Act on a Dream folks, you don’t like that someone asked ICE for a comment? Fine. What happens when a reporter decides it’s not worth it to check in with you on an issue like this? Even more, what happens if you get a reporter who thinks, “Hey, these people are breaking the law by being here. Why should I talk to an organization that supports criminal actions? Let’s just rely on the ICE folks for our stories.” Something tells me this wouldn’t sit well with the Act on a Dream folks, or anyone else with at least half a brain.