Northwestern, Harvard Student Papers Under Fire for Committing Journalism

Harvard students walk through the campus
Harvard students walk through the campus / Getty Images
• November 12, 2019 4:45 pm


Student newspapers at two of the nation's top universities have come under fire from all sides in recent weeks; one for the crime of conforming to well-established journalistic practices, and the other for apologizing for its journalistic standards to appease liberal activists.

On September 13, the Harvard Crimson reported on a campus rally calling for the abolition of the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency. Student organizers from the group Act on a Dream charged that the Crimson had "endangered" protesters, some of whom were illegal immigrants, by contacting ICE for comment. Nearly 1,000 people signed a petition demanding the student newspaper apologize and promise to never again request comment from ICE.

In a letter to readers, the Crimson's editors stood by newsroom policy of seeking out all sides for comment. "At stake here, we believe, is one of the core tenets that defines America's free and independent press: the right—and prerogative—of reporters to contact any person or organization relevant to a story to seek that entity's comment and view of what transpired," they said. "This ensures the article is as thorough, balanced, and unbiased toward any particular viewpoint as possible."

One dissenting voice within the paper, Laura Veira-Ramirez, resigned as an editorial editor in the wake of the episode. She decried the entire notion of journalistic objectivity in an op-ed announcing her decision. "Objectivity is patronizing in inferring people can be objective at all," wrote Veira-Ramirez, who could not be reached for comment. "Instead of conforming to oppressive journalistic norms, The Crimson should be more concerned with its relationships on campus."

Harvard's student government voted 15-13-4 on Sunday to approve a statement expressing "solidarity" with the activists, but refrained from joining the calls for a boycott. "The Undergraduate Council stands in solidarity with the concerns of Act on a Dream, undocumented students, and other marginalized individuals on campus," the statement read. "It is necessary for the Undergraduate Council to acknowledge the concerns raised by numerous groups and students on campus over the past few weeks and to recognize the validity of their expressed fear and feelings of unsafety."

The Harvard student government's vote came the same day that the Daily Northwestern apologized to activists who protested a lecture given by former attorney general Jeff Sessions. In an open mea culpa signed by eight editors, the paper claimed that its reporters had been "retraumatizing and invasive" in tweeting out photos of the public protesters, committed "an invasion of privacy" by texting students requesting comment using their publicly available phone numbers, and failed to "respect the student's concerns for their privacy and safety" by publishing the names of protesters.

The Daily Northwestern‘s apology was lambasted by reporters on social media, who noted that all three practices are uncontroversial and widely practiced in the larger journalism community. In a Twitter thread in response to the criticism, Daily editor in chief Troy Closson acknowledged that the paper had "over-corrected," and explained he was attempting to balance "our coverage and the role of this paper on campus with my racial identity."

Northwestern Medill School of Journalism dean Charles Whitaker directed his ire at the campus activists who forced the paper to apologize in the first place. "As the dean of Medill, where many of these young journalists are trained, I am deeply troubled by the vicious bullying and badgering that the students responsible for that coverage have endured for the ‘sin' of doing journalism," Whitaker wrote in a statement. "Like those student journalists, I, too, have been approached by several student activists who were angered by the fact that they and their peers were depicted on the various platforms of The Daily engaged in the very public act of protesting the Sessions speech."

He wrote that he understood why the Daily editors capitulated to the activists, saying they were "beat into submission by the vitriol and relentless public shaming." Such attempts at bullying and intimidation will not move Whitaker, according to the statement.

"Unlike our young charges at The Daily, who in a heartfelt, though not well-considered editorial, apologized for their work on the Sessions story, I absolutely will not apologize for encouraging our students to take on the much-needed and very difficult task of reporting on our life and times at Northwestern and beyond," the dean wrote.