Journalistic Ethics at Harvard

Last semester, black student leaders organized a confrontational protest at the start of Primal Scream, an annual Harvard undergraduate streaking tradition. The Crimson’s editorial board decided to opine. Typically, the board invites all interested staff members to convene, deliberate, and then vote on a consensus opinion. But when they scheduled this meeting during the March on Harvard—a campus-wide #blacklivesmatter solidarity protest with almost 1,000 participants—they left certain voices outside of the conference room “consensus” and came down against the Primal Scream protesters.

The choice was either ignorant or slyly malicious. The board may have not known about the protest or it may have known about the time conflict and intentionally left participants out of the decision. In either case, the size of the protest, combined with the overwhelming turnout of Harvard’s black community, meant that one side of a divisive issue was unable or unlikely to attend the meeting.*

It’s worth taking a closer look at this decision, which fits into a pattern of journalistic exclusion that often leaves people of color, queer people, and others outside of conversations that directly affect them. At the heart of this pattern is the issue of bias. 

The Harvard Crimson strives to avoid bias. When the involvement or opinion of the journalist enters into a purportedly unslanted piece, this bias is known as a conflict of interest. The Crimson, like most papers, has a defined conflict of interest policy to help staff handle biases. The paper aims to “recognize that the appearance of a conflict of interest is the same as an actual one,” and, like all such policies, this one’s lines are left blurry, open to interpretation.

Over the past few months, however, The Crimson’s management has made decisions about the blurred lines of those policies that consistently leave out those traditionally on the wrong side of Harvard’s ivy-covered walls. They cling to an outdated gold standard of journalism, in which “objectivity” lines up with the perspectives of straight white men. 

 

Walter Lippman, often considered the father of modern American journalism, sought to eliminate the presence of bias by creating a standard of scientific control. His theories can be seen as a possible origin for The Crimson’s conflict of interest policies. An excellent piece of journalism, for him, achieves “the unity of the disciplined experiment.” The journalist distills the world through interviews and observations and swirls it around in his test tube, holding it up at arms length to the light streaming through his lab window.

Lippman’s model of scientific uber-detachment is now considered outdated. A recent Poynter Institute publication declares, “Where we once argued for independence, we now advocate transparency.” Concerns about bias can no longer revolve around involvement, for involvement seems inevitable in a connected world. Are you involved if you like an article on Facebook? Tweet at a political or activist figure? The new model sees bias only if these perceived or actual entanglements hurt the experiment. 

On a college campus, complete detachment is particularly difficult, unless the journalist is a monk. Students sleep with one another, they work with one another, they see each other hungover in class. The best we can do, it seems, is to follow Poynter’s new recommendation and be straightforward about those connections. 

The Crimson hasn’t caught up to these changing standards. Their current ones are a holdover from a significantly less-equitable past, and over the past few months, it has become increasingly clear that The Crimson’s ethical transparency isn’t transparent or ethical at all. 

This February, I had been writing a 5,000-word article for The Crimson on black student activism. I wanted to paint a detailed portrait of a new generation of activists that had risen up over the past few years. It was the exact sort of narrative that The Crimson and American journalism at large often miss out on, unless protesters are blocking highways and throwing water bottles at riot police. 

I had also attended the March on Harvard, the same massive march mentioned earlier, a few months before. Two nights before the piece was supposed to run, the managing editor and president told me that this violated The Crimson’s conflict of interest policy. The piece could not be printed even if it included a note about my attendance, or a brief explanation. All my involvement in the article—hours on hours of interviews and research, countless conversations, trust built—all had to be scrapped.

For many people of color, the decision was none too surprising. Many of my interviewees for the article brought up incident after incident in which they felt The Crimson had published material that excluded or hurt their communities. For many activists, a catalyzing moment was a 2012 op-ed claiming that affirmative action “makes as much sense as helping the visually impaired become pilots.”

Many agreed to be interviewed only after I explained that I was trying to include unheard stories and voices in The Crimson. They worried that the story would cherry-pick quotes to falsely suggest either unanimity or chaos in communities of color. They worried that I would have no sense of the organizational or social landscape and that I would continue to alienate the persistently disrespected through omission of important details, background information, and context. 

The paper at times has failed to cover even major events that may not be on the radar of white people at Harvard. The Crimson never covered the Blacktivism conference, a meeting of hundreds of student-organizers from around the country and world and a continuation of the nationally known “I, Too, Am Harvard” movement. Their newsletter on the first day of the conference featured coverage of The Bach Society’s latest concert and a piece on the Cronut, a New York City pastry fad.

Every person of color I know was at the March on Harvard. If mere attendance at a protest constitutes a conflict, then very few people of color can cover any facet of black activism for The Crimson. This forces journalists of color to make a choice: stay on the sidelines, mute, or engage in the most important issues of our time and sacrifice their journalistic voices. 

Uninvolved reporters interested in covering these issues must become explorers, on the hunt for sources and stories in a terrain in which they’re unfamiliar. This comes in the form of longform, purportedly definitive articles on “the Asian American experience,” the life of the “gay and female,” and an article on interracial dating. The last piece used only three couples as sources; the author explains that “other couples that represent many other ethnicities” declined to be interviewed. 

Those trends cannot be chalked up to Harvard alone as an institution that for too long was a cozy staging ground for a narrowly sourced elite. The admitted class of 2018 was made up of almost half visible minority students. Over 65 percent of students here are on financial aid. We clearly have the tools, or at least the stats and bodies, to actively remove barriers to understanding and fair representation. 

It’s up to publications to start using those tools and removing those barriers. Institutions like The Crimson must not only adopt policies reflecting the changing journalistic standards, but also ensure those policies do not exclude the narratives and voices they currently do. Undergraduate organizations should be leading the nation-wide movement on this account, not lagging behind it. The March on Harvard should pose neither a conflict of interest nor a time conflict to responsible and well-rounded coverage; readers and writers, publishers and the public alike would all stand to benefit.

 

 

*An Addendum: 

 There was, in fact, a second editorial board meeting a few days after the March on Harvard to allow those who attended the protest to contribute to the editorial. The meeting was a majority-rules, yes-no, vote on the pitch and editorial drafted following the December 12 meeting. Ethnic minorities are just that—less than the 50% majority required to win a majority-rules vote. Unsurprisingly, the majority elected to run the editorial drafted during the original meeting. This note has been added for accuracy and clarification.