Harvard Crimson's ICE controversy shows the perils of reporting neutrally on liberal campuses

Telling both sides of a story can spark outrage, but college newspapers shouldn't sacrifice their values because students only want to read one point of view.
Image: Rowers sail down the Charles River past Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass., in 2017.
A controversy over balanced reporting has racked Harvard University's student newspaper, The Harvard Crimson.Charles Krupa / AP file
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By Girisha Arora

My student journalism career at Cornell University started around the same time Donald Trump was elected president. I learned skills such as writing a balanced story while I was getting accustomed to a country that was increasingly polarized. So on one side, I heard his hateful comments against women, and on the other, my editors told me how important it was to include his remarks alongside those of people on the receiving end of such hate in order to deliver a well-reported story.

I went to college to learn as much as I could, not just to reinforce what I already knew.

The challenge of reporting neutrally and being fair to different parties hasn’t become any easier for college journalists since then. A recent case in point: The Harvard Crimson came under fire this week when more than 650 students signed a petition condemning the campus newspaper for reaching out to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement for comment on a student rally advocating the organization’s disbandment. The petition charged that a “request for comment is virtually the same as tipping [ICE] off,” though the request came after the rally had ended, and the practice is standard for journalists.

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As I read about the controversy, I sympathized with The Crimson’s editors, who have stood by their decision to seek comment from ICE despite the campus uproar. Readers of The Cornell Daily Sun are quick to criticize us as well when we present a view that they don’t agree with. A few months after Trump’s election, I was assigned to report on a speech that tea party co-founder Michael Johns gave at Cornell amid impassioned protests. The next morning, students called me out for being biased, including some who were disappointed that I had included any quotes from Johns at all.

If three years of writing and editing for a college newspaper have taught me anything, it’s that even at a “liberal” campus like Cornell where free speech is promoted, one view will be overwhelmingly considered “right” because it represents the ideals espoused by the liberal majority, and there will be another view that people are not comfortable engaging with — but should still be made to.

Readers might think that student newspapers are wrong to give unpopular speakers a platform, but all we’re trying to do is start a dialogue. Even if the view that’s expressed by ICE officials or a university administrator is one that people find offensive, if we are not having these difficult conversations, we're missing a fundamental part of the "critical thinking" aspect of our educational experience. I went to college to learn as much as I could, not just to reinforce what I already knew.

Outside of the formal classroom environment, the best way students can do that learning is by engaging with their campus newspaper. I wasn’t used to journalistic reporting when I first came to campus, so at first it was difficult grappling with the idea that maintaining balance was so crucial. The longer I spent reporting, though, the more it became clear that even a single story where the other side was ignored would lead to my work being automatically branded as biased — in this case, rightly so. In the close-knit college environment, not including a certain perspective effectively alienates that group from participating in any further news coverage on the issue because of their distrust of the newspaper from then on.

At a larger news publication, ignoring one side of a story might be acceptable because there will be three more that will cover it instead. But on a college campus, you don’t have 15 different outlets reporting on the same story; often it’s just one student-run newspaper that has writers and editors juggling classes while covering as much as possible. As the only source of information, we’ve been charged with including all sides of the story and doing the best job that we can with every one of them.

Reporting in college also means that we often have in-person interactions with the people who are critical of our work. The same individuals who leave nasty comments about my story on Facebook and flood my inbox with emails that they “are outraged by this disgusting article” are sitting in my classes. Or I might have to report on them for another article sometime later. While that can be difficult, it also underscores why it’s important as a journalist that I stay neutral and present all sides: It’s my responsibility to do justice to their story, too. My editors’ advice has always been to delete all the hate mail I receive — but I’ve kept it as a reminder that no matter how hard I try, it’s not possible to make everyone happy.

My editors’ advice has always been to delete all the hate mail I receive — but I’ve kept it as a reminder that no matter how hard I try, it’s not possible to make everyone happy.

I study government and economics and have no plans to become a professional journalist. But I continue writing for The Sun despite all the criticism — and still love doing so. I can’t put a finger on exactly why I’ve stuck around. It could be the adrenaline rush of putting out an article between the two essays and a midterm that I have that week, or the fact that whatever I end up writing could be the thing people talk about the next morning on their way to class.

For me it’s important that the article everyone’s reading is good enough to serve as an unbiased starting point for all these conversations — and as an editor, it’s an ideal that I now work to instill in the new student writers as well, despite the criticism they may encounter.