Much ink has been spilled over The Harvard Crimson’s apparently controversial decision to request comment from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) during its reporting of a story that centered on—well—ICE. But in the hubbub, as the Crimson endures an onslaught of criticism and defends its adherence to basic and fair journalistic practices, little attention has been paid to a neighboring student newspaper’s worrisome coverage of the incident.
In a disappointing move by the managing board of The Tufts Daily, the paper denounced its own editorial, in which it publicly stood with the Crimson in defending factual, ethical journalism. The backlash against The Harvard Crimson, plus The Tufts Daily’s backpedaling, suggest that the “outrage culture” gaining momentum on college campuses has influenced some elements within student journalism, to the extent that avoiding imagined harms is prioritized over objective, accurate reporting.
For those late to the game, the Crimson first came under fire last September, when it covered a rally, organized by a student-led immigration advocacy group, that called for the abolition of ICE. Following the event, Crimson reporters reached out to an ICE spokesperson for comment—and that’s when all hell broke loose.
The rally’s organizers accused the Crimson of “cultural insensitivity” and argued that requesting comment from ICE was virtually equivalent to “tipping them off” to the identities of Harvard’s vulnerable students. Others blatantly mischaracterized the paper’s interaction with ICE by claiming that Crimson reporters had literally “called ICE on their fellow students.” The activists provided no plausible explanation for how exactly the Crimson—which had not disclosed any student names or immigration statuses—somehow endangered Harvard’s undocumented community.
In an eloquent and considered note to readers, the Crimson defended its decision to request comment from ICE, and explained that under widely accepted journalistic standards, every person or organization named in a story should be given the opportunity to respond to criticism. Given the content of the anti-ICE rally article, Crimson reporters were not only authorized but also obligated to seek comment from the federal agency.
Unfortunately but not surprisingly, the Crimson’s explanation did not sit well with the triggered students. In an online petition, student activists demanded that the Crimson apologize for the “harm [it] inflicted on the undocumented community,” and cease calling on ICE for comment. When the Crimson refused, the petition’s authors encouraged Harvard’s student groups to boycott the paper by declining requests for comment until the Crimson gives in to their demands. The Crimson, which relies heavily on open communication with student organizations to accurately report on campus happenings, could very well be crippled by such a boycott.
Enter The Tufts Daily. In an admirable display of solidarity, Tufts University’s student newspaper published an editorial titled “The Daily stands with the Crimson in defending factual, ethical journalism.” The unsigned editorial, which presumably reflected the collective judgment of the Daily’s editorial board, contains exactly what the title suggests: a principled defense of fact-based reporting and a commendation of the Crimson’s unyielding adherence to ethical journalistic practices. Amidst the uproar on the Harvard campus, Crimson reporters were no doubt heartened by their fellow student journalists’ public support.
But the Daily’s support was short-lived. Eight weeks after the pro-Crimson editorial was published, the managing board of the Daily issued a letter in which it denounced the editorial and apologized for making Tufts’ undocumented community feel “threatened” (again, no hint as to how exactly a defense of standard reporting procedures could possibly be perceived as threatening). The letter ends by thanking those who “brought the shortcomings of [the Daily’s] coverage to [the board’s] attention.” In plainspeak: the Daily yielded to the loudest voices in the room, and ultimately compromised the integrity of its editorial board.
Today, student journalists face particularly challenging obstacles. They must contend with proliferating diktats of political correctness imposed by those students and administrators who have become galvanized by the outrage culture permeating higher education. It seems that the admirable pursuit of social justice has devolved into a vindictive contest of moral one-upsmanship, in which activists try to outdo one another in locating targets deemed worthy of moral opprobrium, each supposedly more deserving than the last.
Given the multitude of once-benign actions, practices, people, and words that have now been declared taboo, there is really no way to predict what the next object of student outrage will be. It’s no wonder, then, that the Crimson found itself at the center of a campus brawl. During its attempt to provide balanced, factual reporting, it ruffled the feathers of activists looking for new targets at which to channel their outrage. When the Daily came to the Crimson’s defense, it too became a target.
In a time when the press endures unrelenting antagonism on all fronts (including, most notably, from the current occupant of the Oval Office), and legitimate criticisms and inconvenient facts are labeled as “fake news” by those who would rather have a docile populace than an informed one, the press’s crucial responsibility to keep the public apprised and hold those in power accountable is as important, and as vulnerable, as it’s ever been. Student journalists—the professional journalists of tomorrow—will inherit this responsibility.
But if student journalists learn that it’s acceptable to sacrifice objectivity on the altar of political correctness, they will be ill-prepared for the harsh climate that today’s journalists operate within. Amidst venomous accusations that the press has turned into a political propaganda machine, journalists must be fervent and uncompromising in their pursuit of truth. Otherwise, they’ll prove their critics right.
Monika Greco is a Tufts University graduate alum.