When a relevant figure or organization is involved with a story, reporters always reach out for comment.
The story would be unfair without balanced reporting. But Harvard University students didn’t get the common journalistic memo late last month when they condemned The Crimson for asking Immigration and Customs Enforcement to comment on a protest calling on the organization to dissolve. Students are taking a stand for all the wrong reasons.
ICE did not respond, and The Crimson wrote in the story what journalists typically do when someone does not respond: “ICE did not immediately respond to a request for comment Thursday night.” But the fact that reporters reached out at all prompted students to circulate a petition to boycott the newspaper. Critics of The Crimson alleged that reaching out to ICE was dangerous because some of the students involved could have been at risk of deportation.
The Crimson made all the right moves, adhering to standard ethics code in reporting on a sensitive topic, and students still think the paper is in the wrong. The back and forth between The Crimson and students is more than a scuffle – it shows a broader issue of communities misunderstanding the actions and decisions made by the journalists who serve them.
The Crimson’s editors released a statement on their decision, saying they reached out to multiple organizations before asking ICE to comment. The Crimson should not have needed to explain itself in the first place, but its reasons for contacting ICE were valid because journalism requires covering every side of the story.
People perceive the media as just trying to get the story, not as public servants following ethical rules to tell both sides of heated problems. Some students may have only wanted The Crimson to ask the protesters for comment and avoid the organization – ICE – they so openly condemn. But stories are not supposed to be told from one side, and communities should understand that it was OK to contact the federal agency, as long as reporters are careful and protect their sources.
There may have also been a misunderstanding about what The Crimson’s inquiry actually included. The Crimson’s outreach did not put anyone in harm’s way – it called for comment after students had cleared out of the protest, and it only reached out to ICE’s public relations office. The Crimson asked ICE for comment on the protest and did not name any of the protesters or their immigration statuses. Students were not put in danger because of The Crimson.
Journalists go to great lengths to protect their sources from authorities, including the federal government. Although students felt that The Crimson had put them in harm’s way, journalists protect those who cannot be named for whatever reason. Sources can be kept anonymous, and details about a person’s identity can be withheld from the story to protect the person. Some students could also have been concerned about photographs taken at the rally and the possibility for ICE to identify them from their photographs. But The Crimson did not name the people in the photos, so it is difficult for ICE to actually know who they are.
These basic journalistic practices are so commonly known among reporters, but students might not get the gist right away. Initial discomfort about The Crimson’s choice to contact ICE is valid, but there are also details about the paper’s inquiry and reporting that people should understand before they criticize.
Students assumed that reporters aimed to harm rather than help the community, but newspapers have every responsibility to tell both sides of a story fairly and appropriately. The community likely saw The Crimson’s inquiry into ICE as revealing its community members who are undocumented immigrants and betraying the trust of the community. Good newspapers do the exact opposite.
The editorial board is composed of Hatchet staff members and operates separately from the newsroom. This week’s piece was written by opinions editor Kiran Hoeffner-Shah and contributing opinions editor Hannah Thacker based on conversations with The Hatchet’s editorial board, which is composed of assistant copy editor Natalie Prieb, managing director Leah Potter, contributing design editor Olivia Columbus, sports editor Emily Maise and culture editor Sidney Lee.