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The Reader's Representative

By Rajath Shourie

"Ombudsperson" is perhaps the clunkiest word in the English language.

A gender-neutralized version of the Swedish word for "intermediary," the ombudsperson of a newspaper is the advocate of the reader in the newsroom--the person who ensures that the voice of the reader is heard by the editors.

The first such functionary in this country appeared at the Louisville Courier-Journal in 1967. He was an "insider," who acted as a channel between readers and the editorship but did not evaluate the performance of the paper of publish occasional sermons on the sins of journalism.

Today, the role of the "reader representative" has changed. It is my responsibility not only to take complaints and make suggestions, but also to critique The Crimson and its content.

In this column, which will run bi-weekly on page three, I will attempt to explain how and why certain decisions are made, and, when appropriate take The Crimson to task for reporting or editing errors.

The views expressed here are mine alone.

One common complaint about The Crimson is that too often the paper runs stories without knowing all of the relevant facts.

On February 7, The Crimson printed an article about allegations of sexual harassment against Clay Professor of Scientific Archaeology Nikolaas van der Merwe. Specifically, several graduate students had alleged that van der Merwe, by telling sexuality explicit jokes, had created in the archaeology wing of the anthropology department an atmosphere that was extremely difficult for women.

The story was based on interviews with more than 50 students and professors over a two-month period however, no one who charged van der Merwe with misconduct spoke on the record.

Several other people whose comment would have been relevant to the story also refused to speak about the alleged incidents. Among them, Anthropology Department Chair Peter T. Ellison and graduate student Meredith Chesson. Ellison chaired a meeting last week to discuss morale in the archaeology wing of his department. Chesson was the student van der Merwe said had raised allegations against him because she didn't want to take his class.

Our reporters called Ellison's office at least nine times before the story ran to ask him for comment. He didn't return the calls. In December, he had said he wouldn't discuss any matter pertaining to his department.

Chesson told one reporter, "I have no statement to make whatsoever.

Without comment from these two, we certainly did not have all the facts relevant to the story at the time it ran. But this does not necessarily mean that we should not have run it.

Since the story appeared in last Monday's paper, both Chesson and Ellison have written letters to The Crimson. (Chesson's was printed in Wednesday's paper, Ellison's appeared in Friday's.) Additionally Ellison has spoken several times to our reporters on the record, for even an hour in total.

And this is why it is sometimes necessary--unfortunately--to run stories that are not as factually complete as we would like them to be. People initially unwilling to comment often do so after an article is published.

This does not absolve newspapers from getting as many of the relevant facts as they can before printing a story. It does recognize, however, that getting all the facts may not be possible. If several sources confirm a statement, and if a good faith effort has been made to get all sides of a story, it is justified to print it.

In this case, The Crimson relied on the words of not one or two, but seven students in the department.

Ellison and Chesson both imply in their letters that it is irresponsible journalism to use a person's name in a story in which he or she refuses to comment. But, logically extended, this seems to be a difficult proposition to sustain. By this rationale for instance, if Tonya Harding refused to comment on the attack on Nancy Kerrigan, it would be irresponsible to print her name in any story related to the incident. Or, without President Nixon's comments, It was careless to name him in stories about Watergate.

Having said this, I would probably not have named Meredith Chesson in the original article. My argument for this position is not that she refused to speak to our reporters, but rather that The Crimson did not have official documentation of a supposedly "formal" complaint.

In his letter, Ellison is very concerned with the principles of confidentiality and due process--and The Crimson's lack of respect for them. Yet Ellison himself disclosed to our reporters details of a supposedly confidential meeting that he held with graduate students in the archaeology wing.

And Chesson's response to a call from one of our reporters," I have no statement to make whatsoever," seems to contradict the tone of her letter--in which she writes that had the reporters asked. "I would have told them that I had never filed a complaint of sexual harassment against any faculty members in the archaeology wing."

None of the above is meant to exonerate The Crimson from all blame in its coverage of the archaeology wing. For a start, naming Chesson in the original story was unnecessary. And some of the paper's subsequent coverage has had problems.

Most importantly, the staff editorial, "Investigate Charges," which appeared in Wednesday's paper, is inaccurate in one respect. It claims that Margot N. Gill, the GSAS's dean of student affairs who is responsible for handling cases of sexual misconduct, has "not even launched a perfunctory investigation into the allegations against van der Merwe."

The Crimson simply does not know this for sure. Our reporters recognize as much.

Gill has refused to discuss the issues with them, and other people could not know for certain whether or not she has investigated the allegations.

Further, the editor's note responding to Chesson's letter, is also inaccurate when it says that "Crimson reporters contacted Chesson and asked her about the complaint." The reporter who called did not get to ask about the complaint per se, Chesson declined to comment the minute he mentioned "sexual harassment." And, especially in an issue as delicate as this one, it was extremely poor form to misspell Chesson's first name in the attribution to her letter.

In my view, avoidable errors in subsequent coverage have damaged The Crimson's credibility on a story that was as initially reported, strong.

Most of these errors have been caused by miscommunication between reporters and editors--and among departments--and must be avoided if The Crimson wishes to maintain its readers trust.

The views expressed are solely those of the author.

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