Obviously, The Harvard Crimson is not The Washington Post. Still, I'd like to draw a parallel and I hope you'll find it a useful one: Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein were not told about what came to be known as the Watergate scandal.
No-one held a public event or called a press conference. The reporters pushed hard and uncovered a major scandal. They pressed for some information in order to do this, but it was information which they felt was valuable to their readers. In doing so, the pair became stars in probably the biggest investigative reporting coup ever.
But according to some definitions I've heard tossed around in recent weeks, Woodward and Bernstein would be guilty of "making news."
The story of Watergate didn't fall into their laps; they had to hunt for it in some places that were perhaps before perceived as private. Their methods were unorthodox, but not necessarily unprincipled. They discovered and revealed information that could have been harmful to the Post's readers had it remained secret.
This is the principle upon which The Crimson stands behind the investigative feature which reporter Jonathan Lewin published February 1, and it's one which I agree with.
While The Crimson received only one formal response to the story, some readers have written at length on an Internet newsgroup about concerns that speak to fundamental issues of journalistic integrity.
How far can The Crimson, in accordance with the standards of the newspaper industry, go in "making news?" Lewin has been charged with just that in reading a public log file maintained on the Internet by Harvard Arts and Sciences Computer Services [HASCS].
Lewin read the file and documented gross violations of user privacy--he was able to identify students and faculty who downloaded pornographic images.
No names were revealed in the article. Each person involved was contacted for comment before the story ran. And most of those people thanked The Crimson for letting them know that the Internet activity they thought was private really wasn't.
Any student could have accessed this file. But in reading this file Lewin has himself been accused of invading the privacy of the net users whom he found conducting sometimes-illegal activity.
In finding this story Lewin did nothing illegal, and nothing that any good reporter at a major newspaper doesn't do every day: keep his (or her) eyes open.
Technically Lewin, or any Harvard student, cannot in compliance with the rules of Harvard College access any file that was not created by that student.
But this file was created by noone--so the question of who can rightfully access it is has no clear answer. Lewin was also given permission to read the file by HASCS Director Franklin M. Steen, who said Lewin's actions would not constitute an invasion of privacy.
Investigative reporting is something you might not expect from The Crimson--it's something The Crimson doesn't do often and it doesn't necessarily do well.
But this kind of reporting is common practice and fair play unless the paper does something illegal.