The Crimson Is Divided—And We Like It That Way

This is the third in a series of bi-weekly columns designed to explain The Crimson’s policy decisions and coverage choices.

During the weeks leading up to his resignation, University President Lawrence H. Summers made the pages of this paper quite frequently, both in the news and editorial sections.

Our front page on Feb. 10 detailed Professor Judith L. Ryan’s intention to place a motion of no confidence in Summers on the agenda of an upcoming faculty meeting; a Feb. 13 editorial urged the Faculty to “end its groundless campaign to oust the president.”

A Feb. 17 editorial stated that the Undergraduate Council should abandon a plan for a student poll on Summers’ leadership; on Feb. 21, the news section fronted a story about a poll our reporters had conducted on students’ views of Summers.

And after the president resigned on Feb. 21, the editorial board stated in a much-cited piece which ran the next day that Summers’ resignation was “Harvard’s loss.”

For readers unfamiliar with the media in general or The Crimson in particular, the stance of the editorial board may have tainted our news coverage of Summers’ resignation and the events which led up to it. It did not help this perception that other newspapers carried articles or opinion pieces that stated that Summers had the support of “the student newspaper.”

Writing about the Crimson editorial on the proposed UC poll in a posting to a House open list, one student rhetorically asked, “Does the News board read the Ed page? Isn’t the ‘Staff-Ed’ supposed to reflect the view of the entire staff? Should the Crimson readership expect a retraction of that opinion? Or is there absolutely no coordination by the Crimson’s leadership as to what it is doing?”

The answer to the last question is actually yes: there is no coordination among the leadership of the news and editorial boards. And that is how we want it. We strive for fairness and balance in our news reporting, writing, and editing, and the divide between the news and editorial boards serves to protect the integrity of this effort.

One of The Crimson’s most protected institutions is the idea of a “wall” between the news and editorial boards. Unfortunately, we tend to do a poor job of making the wall’s existence clear to our readers, who may sometimes assume that the opinions of the editorial board also guide our news-gathering enterprise. Though we do not have the resources to physically separate our paper’s dual functions, there are a number of strictly-enforced policies that make this invisible divide a real and powerful part of our paper.

As many readers in our community know, anyone elected to any of our nine boards is considered to be a Crimson ‘editor,’ and as such, can attend and vote at editorial meetings. However, according to our building-wide policies, news writers are not allowed to participate in debate or vote at meetings in which the subjects they cover are being discussed. Any writer who engages in debate or a vote on a particular subject can never write on that topic again, regardless of whether it falls within his or her beat.

This policy extends to editors, too. Our news executives—the people who assign, edit, and proof stories on a daily basis—cannot edit stories related to subjects that they have debated or voted on at editorial meetings. News executives are also not allowed to vote on the subjects that fall on beats that are under their areas of oversight.

And though the topics that the editorial board chooses to write about are often taken from the pages of our newspaper, it is the editorial chairs, and not the news executives, who put items on the editorial board’s agenda.

Now, at the request of the editorial board chairs, a reporter may sometimes be asked to appear at editorial meetings to answer factual questions relating to his or her beat. But in such cases, our policies mandate that the reporter “will take care to only answer questions he or she is asked, to refrain from expressing his or her personal views, and to leave the editorial meeting after they have finished answering questions.”

Our leadership structure strives for separation between news and opinion, as well. I chair the news board, and report to our managing editor, as do the chairs of Arts, Sports, and Fifteen Minutes. The managing editor reports to the president. In contrast, however, the chairs of the editorial board report directly to the president. Except for the daily proofer who proofreads the editorial page and checks it for libel the night before publication, the news board has no involvement whatsoever in the production of The Crimson’s editorial positions.

The wall between the news and opinion operations ensures that during especially political crises like the Summers resignation, our reporters are focused on writing articles that present readers with the facts. The editorial board of The Crimson is an influential institution that will continue to make its own press with its opinions. But our building-wide policies—and the efforts of those at the helm of the news board—aim to ensure that this influence does not extend to the news pages, and vice-versa.

The news/editorial wall, though preventing bias based on the editorial board’s positions, does not rule out the potential bias emanating from individual reporters’ personal opinions. Two weeks from now in this space, William C. Marra ‘07, The Crimson’s president, will write about the paper’s conflict of interest policies and on the concept of ‘objectivity’ in journalism.

—May Habib ’07, an Economics and Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations concentrator in Pforzheimer House, is the associate managing editor of The Crimson. Please send feedback to habib@fas.harvard.edu.