Walter Cronkite once said that the job of journalists is “only to hold up the mirror – to tell and show the public what has happened.” These words nicely sum up The Crimson’s own journalistic mission to serve you, the reader, and the entire Harvard community by keeping you informed of developments that might affect your life as a Harvard student, professor, or curious onlooker. We report on public events, like a meeting of the Undergraduate Council or the announcement of a new College initiative. But at the heart of our job are those stories that require investigation, and that someone somewhere would rather you not read about—it was our exposé of Harvard’s PetroChina holdings, for example, that sparked student protests and ultimately resulted in Harvard’s decision to divest from the Beijing-based firm that does business in the Sudan. Our job is to hold up the mirror to you, so that you can hold your administrators and representatives accountable for their actions.
But we cannot responsibly hold up the mirror to you if we don’t also hold it up to ourselves—and take a serious look at what we see.
With that in mind, we launch today a new feature: a bi-weekly editor’s column, where we will address various issues, questions, and concerns, on the level of both individual stories and broader coverage and policy. This space will allow us to explain to you, our readers, why we make the decisions we make—whether to print the name of a student arrested on drug charges, use an anonymous source, or to maintain a strict wall between our news reporting and opinion pages. And it will ensure that we operate with the transparency and accountability that we expect of the people and institutions we cover.
Journalism is all about trust. It is no coincidence that Cronkite, arguably the most successful American journalist of the 20th century, is dubbed “the most trusted man in America.” Newspapers cannot hold leaders accountable and keep readers abreast of developments in their community if people do not believe what they read in its pages.
How do newspapers, and The Crimson in particular, retain that trust? By remembering that the reader comes first, and that we exist above all to serve our community. Nothing is journalism that “does not regard the reader...as a master to be served,” former Los Angeles Times editor John Carroll has said. (The Crimson is, of course, different from professional papers like the Times in that it also has an educative function, and exists to train its reporters as journalists. These dual missions need not be exclusive of each other.)
To retain your trust and our credibility, we have to do two things. Most basically, we have to ensure readers trust that what they are reading in our pages is fact, not fiction. I believe our industrious and assiduous reporters, backed by the paper’s 133-year legacy, ensure that most readers do pick up the paper each morning with a basic assumption of truth. But the peaceful slumbers of complacency are never far off, and I hope this column will provide us with a bi-weekly opportunity to recommit ourselves to the truth.
Second, we have to ensure that you the reader understand and trust the tough journalistic decisions that the editors make on a daily basis. A lot of thought goes into our decision to print the name of a student charged with a crime or to run a poll gauging student opinion. But we often do not explain those decisions to you, leaving the impression that we may be deaf to criticism.
This column is a message to you that we are listening, and that we care. We don’t expect you to agree with every decision we make, or every argument that will be made in this space on alternate Mondays. But we do want to communicate the logic behind our position, and more importantly to engage in a dialogue with you about these issues.
I hope you will take this as a renewed invitation to voice your views and opinions. The next column, on April 3, will be penned by Managing Editor Daniel J. Hemel ’07 and will consider The Crimson’s coverage of drug arrests on campus. Associate Managing Editor May Habib ’07 will write on April 17. We encourage you to send us your questions and concerns, and to suggest column topics.
Newspapers cannot cover a community from some lofty perch, unresponsive and above the fray. Journalism at its best brings reporters to the disparate and the dirty, the lawmakers and the lawbreakers—and then brings those stories to the readers. We are a part of our community, and we must engage that community. We hope this column is a positive step in that direction.
William C. Marra ’07 is president of The Crimson. He can be reached at email@example.com.