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About two weeks ago, The Crimson ran a series of articles about the Lynx, a new all-female social club on campus.
Members of the club, who had been questioned by the reporter covering the story, objected to what they called The Crimson's overly aggressive tactics. They said that the reporter had followed them around campus and had attempted to crash a party they held at a restaurant in the North End. This, they said, was harassment.
The Lynx incident, and others like it, raise the question of what constitutes inappropriate behavior by a reporter. Does the nature of the job--which is, after all, to find out things other people don't know--give reporters more freedom to snoop?
In the past, Crimson reporters have followed sources to check their license plate numbers, talked to people's neighbors to try to get background information about them. One even staked out a person's home to wait for a suspected lover to appear.
Did The Crimson, in the name of advancing the story, go too far in these instances? How are we to judge particular cases, such as one involving the Lynx?
Joseph S. Steinfield, who heads the media law practice group at the Boston firm of Hill & Barlow (which The Crimson has consulted for advice on stories), says "reporters don't have rights to do what the rest of the world can't do."
In other words, while reporters are entitled to do their job, the freedom to gather and report the news does not give them carte blanche to invade people's private lives.
Trespassing on private property, repeatedly calling a person's home late at night or threatening someone who refuses to be interviewed with adverse consequences are examples of behavior that might be considered harassment.
And what about following someone around? Like in most cases of harassment, it's a question of degree.
Harvard Police Chief Paul E. Johnson says that a reporter who continually follows a person could easily be slapped with a restraining order. Johnson believes that if the stalking begins to affect the person's life, the reporter may even be "criminally culpable."
The most famous case of this genre was one in which a photographer (not from The Crimson) continually stalked Jacque-line Kennedy Onassis. Eventually, a judge entered an injunction against the photographer which required him to keep his distance.
In the judge's opinion, the photographer went too far. But how are we to make that determination for other cases, such as the Lynx episode?
The first principle of reporting ethics is that whatever a reporter does must be done to advance the story he or she is working on. Anything that is done without this clear intention is immediately suspect. In the case of the Lynx, there was definitely a story being pursued--potentially, of a new final club being created.
If this first principle is to be the sole determinant of the bounds of appropriate behavior--as it is for many reporters and editors--it must be premised on a conception that people are under a special obligation to talk to the press.
I would not go this far. For me, there is a clear distinction to be made between private and public figures in this regard--with private individuals having no obligation at all to cooperate with reporters.
In the Lynx case, extenuating circumstances made the reporter's actions justifiable, in my opinion. Members of the club changed their statements from day-to-day. At first, they even denied the existence of the Lynx. Reporters presented with deliberately misleading information should be allowed to do what it takes to discover the truth.
And in the Lynx case, the alleged "harassment" stopped entirely once the story had been confirmed--showing that the reporter was not engaged in gratuitous intimidation but instead was trying to do her job.
One final point: if you think that a Crimson reporter is harassing you, bring it to the attention of someone at the paper.
And if a reporter tries to call you on the phone, on a story in which you don't want to comment, the best course of action is to take the call and indicate that you have nothing to say. Further calls can then be interpreted correctly as harassment.
Avoid the call, and you may leave yourself vulnerable to more of the same.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author.
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