Monday, December 2, 2013

Should the Crimson Act Like a Real Newspaper?

The question arises because of a recent story, Two Harvard Students Arrested, Charged with Assault and Battery on a HUPD Officer in Unrelated Incidents. The Crimson printed the names of the two students, and so far the story has drawn more than 90 comments. Some of the comments (all anonymous, as far as I noticed) are the usual silliness and anger. But a fair number of them seem to be serious, though not in agreement. Depending on the point of view, either (a) of course the names should have been printed, that is what happens when you get arrested – your arrest record becomes public, and the local paper prints it, if the story is worth reporting at all; or (b) it's terrible that the Crimson is tarring the reputation of these students, who have not been found guilty of anything yet, who may have been arrested on false pretenses, who should not have to live with the story surviving in Crimson archives and turning up in Google searches long after the actual incident has been put to bed.

I think the Crimson has been struggling recently with how it wants to play the game – in essence, is it going to be more like a high school newspaper, subject to administrative oversight and always kind in its reporting, or is it going to try to do real journalism, the kind that holds the powerful to account and occasionally pisses them off? I am glad that the Crimson backed off a practice it should never have adopted – allowing university officials to edit their quotes as the price of being interviewed at all. As Nicholas Fandos explained in his profile of Dean Michael Smith,
Ever since The Crimson instituted a new policy banning quote review at the start of the 2012-2013 academic year, the person with the most power at Harvard College has not agreed to fully on-the-record interviews with The Crimson, and has not met or spoken with the paper in any capacity this academic year.
I don't know when the policy of allowing "quote review" was instituted at the Crimson; it was surely a bad idea, as, if known, it makes reporting less credible (and if not known, it makes the reporting dishonest, since what is presented as said by an official was actually out of the mouth of the communications staff).

Fandos, who wrote a number of the stories on the email searching scandal, is now the Managing Editor of the Crimson. He is a good reporter and I wish him well.

One could take the view that the Crimson should be doing hard-nosed investigative reporting, but still be the voice of students, and therefore respectful of them, if not of the administration. By that logic, I suppose, the Crimson would print the name of a professor who was arrested for assaulting an HUPD officer, but not of a student. There remains the problem of peer disputes, where the student victim might think the paper was picking sides by protecting the identity of the assailant.

In any case, it seems to me that the paper would lose all credibility at that point. Readers would have to assume that it was pulling punches whenever a student issue was being reported.

If the Crimson starts pulling punches, it's cooked as a serious organ. I doubt it would attract in the future the likes of past editors Anthony Lewis, Linda Greenhouse, David Sanger, or current star reporters at the Washington Post, David Fahrenthold and Rosalind Helderman, or dozens of other graduates of the Crimson school of journalism. (OK full disclosure: Fahrenthold used to cover me, and wound up marrying my daughter. A good reminder for you Crimson reporters –– be tough but be fair. You never know where your subjects will turn up in your later life.) Its editors would not get good jobs in journalism after graduating, as they now often do, because it would be known that the organization was no longer teaching good journalistic practice.

So it seems to me the answer to the question is an obvious "yes." It is a bit disturbing that so many people–probably students–commenting on the story think the answer should be "no." Makes me worry about the future of journalism if Harvard students think the role of journalism is to protect their fellow students.


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  2. I've never heard of a paper that had a policy against "quote review." There was an article about this in The Times back in September 2012. According to the Public Editor, The Times has no hard and firm policy. In the past I've given some sources the opportunity to hear their quotes to make sure that I transcribed them correctly. Other times I haven't. It depends on the context.

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