Ombudsman: Crimson Should Strengthen Conflict-of-Interest Policy

When The Crimson hired me four months ago to be its ombudsman, a few editors were concerned this column would amount to a protracted exercise in navel gazing. Were that this was the only navel-gazing The Crimson does!

But The Crimson can’t get enough of itself, reporting virtually every day about its own.

On April 27, the paper reported that four students, including two who were identified as Crimson editors, had been arrested after protesting a speech by FBI Director Robert S. Mueller at the Kennedy School’s Institute of Politics. In subsequent stories about the arrests—charges were dropped May 10—the paper clarified that one of the protesters last wrote for The Crimson in 2004 and the other was a former editorial columnist.

But in the days since the arrests Crimson staffers have kept making news. Also on April 27, the paper quoted a Crimson news editor in a news article about a Chinese etiquette event she attended. The April 30 paper reported that a Crimson editor, who is also a goalie on the women’s water polo team, was “overpowered” by the Hartwick College team in a game that ended glumly, 16-1, Hartwick. A sports article the same day quoted an editorial editor, who is also a coxswain on the men’s lightweight crew team. (The paper may not be showing its staffers that much favor. The coxswain was misquoted; a correction ran in the next issue.)

The May 2 Arts section had a Q&A with a news editor who was playing Juliet that weekend in a production of “Romeo and Juliet.” The next day, the editorial page praised a Web site designed by an editorial editor, who also happened to have won the editorial page’s endorsement last year in an unsuccessful bid to be Undergraduate Council president.

I could go on.

Are Crimson editors simply the busiest people on campus? Maybe, but not as busy as a casual reader of the paper might think.

The Crimson currently claims that about 800 undergraduates are Crimson “editors.” That’s because, until recently, it identified anyone who has ever joined the staff as an “editor.” Joining the staff involves writing a certain number of stories (or taking photos or designing pages as the case may be) and attending a few seminars, steps fully one in eight undergrads has taken.

Only 250 to 275 of those staffers still regularly contribute to the newspaper, and only 96 appear on the paper’s masthead, the people who hold management positions.

The staff will never be free of conflicts of interest. It would be unreasonable to expect sports editors not to be friends with athletes or arts editors not to be roommates with performers. But the paper can do better than it does.

As it is, by identifying so many students as editors, readers are left with the impression that Crimson reporting is driven more by reporters’ and editors’ outside interests than their principled news judgment. And students frustrated that their organizations aren’t being covered by the newspaper quite reasonably may wonder if they would have received better, or at least more coverage, if they were an editor.

“One should not have to work for a newspaper in order to be treated fairly by it,” Aaron Greenspan ’04-’05 wrote me in an e-mail earlier this month, complaining about what he perceived as the disparate treatment he received from The Crimson compared with another student who was similarly situated, but also happened to be an editor.

The paper thought it was serving transparency by aggressively identifying every editor, but the opposite resulted, sometimes wrongly implying all these protesters, student politicos, athletes and actors were active in the paper. (Nevertheless, I’m told several of the “editors” in the stories I mentioned earlier are indeed active contributors to the paper.)

The paper has taken two steps recently to clarify the situation. First, it has begun reclassifying students who are no longer regularly contributing to the newspaper as “inactive editors.” Second, when quoting or referring to its own staffers, the paper will now identify them functionally, explaining what their role is in the paper, not just that they are “editors.” The paper now identifies inactive editors as having last written for the paper a year ago, or whatever the case may be.

“Readers,” wrote managing editor Javier C. Hernandez ’08, in a staff memo announcing the change May 6, “are understandably puzzled when we explain that an ‘editor’ does not necessarily edit or even contribute regularly to our newspaper.”

Those are good first steps, but the paper ought to do more.

Many professional journalists take a monastic approach to their profession, refusing to hold stock, register in political parties or even vote. I’m not saying The Crimson needs to take that approach. College is a great opportunity to experiment with different experiences.

But given how many people want to be part of The Crimson—even just considering the 250 to 275 “active editors”—the paper can afford to say that its staff shouldn’t be major players in the activities they cover. That probably means athletes shouldn’t be active contributors to the sports news coverage (two currently are) or theater critics be frequent actors (a policy already prevents that). News reporters and editors might find themselves even more constrained in their outside activities.

Crimson management doesn’t entirely agree.

“We don’t tell them once they’re on staff they can’t do certain things,” said Hernandez, who supervises all Crimson content except the editorial page and advertising.

Instead, Hernandez said, the paper carefully makes sure that individual reporters and editors are not covering organizations and events they’re involved in. Some departments have particularly stringent policies—the Arts section won’t allow anyone who has even tried out for a show in the past year to review theater. Such a policy is sensible and perhaps adequate when Crimson editors only have loose connections with other student groups.

The editorial page is rather liberal in its policy, allowing editors to participate in editorial meetings related to their student groups, as long as everyone in the room knows about their association. The reader, of course, doesn’t have a seat in that room and never knows who writes staff editorials, let alone what else they do on campus.

When individual students are deeply involved in The Crimson and outside interests, such minimal protections are too little to convince readers the paper is serious about bolstering its credibility.

Michael Kolber is The Crimson’s ombudsman and a Harvard Law School student. He writes a monthly column, responding to reader complaints with his independent critiques of The Crimson. This is his third column.