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Educating Ourselves: A Newspaper's Balancing Act

A Parting Shot

By Julian E. Barnes

The First Amendment to the Constitution awards newspapers a special place in our society. The Constitution gives newspapers great privileges--access to information, documents and public figures. It gives protection--newspapers and gun manufacturers are among the only businesses specifically guarded by the Constitution. As a result, the First Amendment grants great power--a newspaper can help set the public agenda by deciding which events get a great deal of attention and, effectively, which ideas are ignored. These special privileges, protections and powers give newspapers a particular responsibility to serve the community.

Progressive-era muckrakers interpreted a newspaper's responsibility as its commitment to defend community members who lacked the blessings of liberty. Joseph Pulitzer, who purchased the New York World in the 1880s, left the journalism profession a legacy of yellow reporting, but he also left a credo that challenges newspapers to serve their community. "A free press should always fight for progress and reform, never tolerate injustice or corruption, always fight demagogues of all parties, never belong to any party, always oppose privileged classes and public plunderers, never lack sympathy for the poor, always remain devoted to the public welfare," he wrote.

Many old-style newspaper reporters wore Pulitzer's code as a badge of honor, or used it to justify their low salaries. Many news writers considered it their duty to "comfort the afflicted" and "afflict the comfortable."

The division between the afflicted and the comfortable was clear to Pulitzer. He knew who the little guy was, and who was in power. But newspapers today cannot be so certain who is comfortable and who is afflicted. Charles Stuart at first appeared to be an innocent suburban victim of urban violence. After his body was fished our of the Mystic River, he became a calculating villain, intent on fanning the flames of racial hatred.

Boston City Councilor Bruce Bolling late last year accused a cab driver of racism when she refused to take him to his Roxbury home. At first the story seems simple; a Black official was a victim of discrimination. But cabbies complain that they are often victims themselves of violence and robbery. They assert that they are not being racist but rather protecting what little they have. Suddenly it is a little harder to figure out who is the underdog.

A mere dedication to standing up for the truly disadvantaged is not enough anymore. Today's world is more complex, and in it, a newspaper's commitment to its community is more complicated. Newspapers have many responsibilities to society. They have a duty to report investigative features and everyday news, to educate their readers, to respond to criticism and to reflect accurately the diversity of the community in their newspapers and in their newsrooms.

The primary responsibility of a newspaper has been, and always will be, to provide news. Today, Pulitzer's credo in part translates into a mandate for investigative, in-depth journalism. It's important to publish stories that people do not want to hear about, to discuss incidents people don't consider relevant or believe should "best be left alone." But serving the community requires more than glitzy, controversial investigative reporting. A newspaper best promotes the public welfare by chronicling the everyday existence of everyday people.

That means a newspaper has a responsibility to run stories that not everyone will read. At The Crimson last year we ran stories about the city, although few undergraduates took notice. We wanted to help Harvard students to understand the city in which they live and study. Similarly, this past year we devoted a great deal of time and resources to covering stories about alleged racism in the security guard unit, an issue that may not have affected student life but one we felt was vitally important to the University.

Newspapers are educational institutions. The Constitution's framers protected newspapers in large part because they felt it important to keep the populace politically informed. Today, the free press is essential to keeping this country's democracy functioning. The press informs people of the events and issues of the day, locally and nationally. The press provides the information by which people judge whether their representatives are fit for office.

Because it is Harvard's paper, The Crimson has a responsibility that most other newspapers do not have. Our primary function is to educate our readers about news and events. But we are a collegiate extracurricular activity, and have the added responsibility of educating our own staff.

We are a learning and teaching institution. We teach our reporters how to write and investigate. We teach our executives how to edit, manage and lead. We instill in our reporters a belief in accuracy and fairness above all else. This year, to train our contributing reporters more effectively, we brought Nieman fellows--professional journalists invited to Harvard for a year of study--to deliver lectures on everything from newspaper ethics to investigative reporting to community responsibility. But because The Crimson is a learning experience, we will sometimes make mistakes.

Last spring, virtually every minority and cultural group on campus flooded our offices with mail. Much of the correspondence came in response to an editorial we wrote, rebutting a letter to the editor from Harvard Foundation Director S. Allan Counter. The letter criticized a series on diversity which appeared in the fall of 1991, as well as the paper's more recent coverage of City University of New York Professor Leonard Jeffries' visit to campus. The letter implies, in part, that Crimson writers had improper ties to Hillel. Counter's letter accused The Crimson of failing to report campus events accurately, of introducing bias in our news coverage and of unnecessarily highlighting controversy.

Suddenly, we were the focus of much of the community's anger--an awkward position for many of us at The Crimson. We were the "privileged classes," the "public plunderers," the comfortable. We thought of ourselves as a community watchdog; instead, our readers cast us as a villain.

"We're not in this to be nice," is a timeworn Crimson motto that in some ways speaks the truth. Despite a dedication to the community and to objective reporting, a newspaper does not often win friends. Even the most fair and accurate reporting of controversy can leave both sides angry.

A newspaper does not serve its community by pandering to it. The most important news is usually controversial, usually involves people who would prefer that their stories remain unexposed. Yet a newspaper does not perform its duty by suppressing news. A newspaper best serves the community by leading, not by following polls or popular opinion.

But unthinking adherence to a motto like "we are not in this to be nice" makes it too easy to brush aside criticism that may be legitimate. Each issue of a newspaper includes not only the news, but also the editors' and reporters' personal judgments about what is interesting and important. Consequently, news people are not always willing to take criticism. To question an editor's judgment, they think, is paramount to questioning a bloodhound's nose. When news is the topic, few journalists will readily admit they are wrong, especially when non-journalists are raising the questions.

Yet when newspaper editors fail to consider public criticism, they are abdicating their responsibility to the community. A newspaper that ignores its readers isn't looking out for the community's best interest, but for its own.

The novel The Porcupine, written by a decidedly more famous Julian Barnes, chronicles the fictional trial of a toppled Eastern European communist leader. A conversation between the book's two protagonists, the toppled leader and a prosecutor appointed by the new regime, turns to the subject of newspapers. The former leader will only read the old communist party newspaper; he shrugs off any suggestion that the new newspapers are any more free or independent.

"[T]he Party they represent is the worst of all, the party of egoism," he says.

A newspaper falls into this cult of egoism rather easily. In the past, some Crimson editors were cocky and dismissive of community criticism. People who complained that their programs were not covered were pegged publicity hounds. Events that only drew small crowds were considered unfitting for front-page news

Yet the privileges granted to newspapers not only command editors to make their best judgments on what is important; responsible newspapers must also listen to criticism and respond to it. At The Crimson this year, we have tried to become better listeners.

Last spring, minority groups complained that The Crimson's emphasis on events with large audiences often meant that cultural programs went without coverage, leading to the perception that the paper only was interested in "white" news. This was probably some of the strongest criticism leveled at the paper. Most minority groups make up a relatively small percentage of the student population. Their events may attract sizable turnouts from within their own ethnic groups, but they do not draw large numbers in absolute terms Under out old system, that meant the groups could go uncovered, remaining largely invisible to the greater part of the campus. This fall, we adopted a new standard of judging whether public events are worthy of mention in our paper. If an event attracts a high percentage of a minority group. we now consider it newsworthy.

Newspapers have a responsibility to ensure that their news columns represent the diversity of their readers. They must also ensure that their newsrooms reflect their readership. The Crimson staff's failure to reflect accurately the diversity of Harvard-Radcliffe is a problem we have long acknowledged. Without a diverse staff, our coverage of underrepresented groups lacks depth and nuance. If we had a more Black editors. It is undeniable that we would publish more news about Black students. As it is now, our ties to the Black community are weak.

The high number of Jewish, students on our staff makes us sensitive to issues that are important to Jewish students kosher toasters and the appearance of Leonard Jeffries and we give those issues coverage. The problem with The Crimson is not too many Jewish students but too few Black students. This fall, with the help of DuBois Professor of the Humanities Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Nieman Foundation Curator Bill Kovach. we began a renewed recruiting drive. We visited student groups, held a minority recruiting meeting and hosted a conference on minorities and journalism. The results were mixed, but The Crimson is committed to continuing and expanding our recruiting efforts.

While diversity is necessary, the idea that only minorities can accurately report and write about minorities is wrong. The Crimson is committed to increasing out diversity through vigorous recruiting, but we do not find it productive to judge a reporter on the basis of race. At the conference this fall, Kovach reminded the assembled students and journalists that a bad reporter, regardless of his or her ethnicity, will do a bad job "A good reporter of whatever background can do a good job reflecting an alien reality," Kovach said. "This is so because the best reporting is transparent. It lets the people and the events and the context within which they interact speak directly to the reader or the viewer."

That is the real strength of a newspaper. At its best, it gives people an opportunity to listen to voices they may not usually hear. It is a vehicle that educates the community and brings its disparate members together. That is the newspaper we want to be. The goal is elusive, but still one The Crimson strives to achieve. If more people read and criticize the paper, and if more people come to 14 Plympton St. and join the paper, we can move closer to that ideal

Joseph Pulitzer thought journalists had a duty to protect the afflicted from the tyranny of the comfortable.

On a college campus in the 1990s, reporters and editors face different responsibilities--and different challenges.

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