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On Taking It Seriously

By Elisabeth S. Theodore

My colleagues on The Crimson and I liked to think, as we devoted our undergraduate lives to the paper, that this extracurricular was somehow different from many of the others at Harvard—more serious, more worthwhile, not merely one that could benefit us by teaching us skills or making us contacts but one that conferred a real benefit on the student body and on the University as a whole. Whether it was a question of how stringent our conflict-of-interest policy should be, or how we should describe anonymous sources in our paper, or whether we should allow sources to review quotations before publication, the constant refrain at The Crimson is “What’s the New York Times’ policy?” or “What do the national papers do?” After all, while we are emphatically not The Times, at least sometimes they pick our stories up.

So it stung when, less than a month into my tenure as managing editor, a student who was furious about several aspects of the way in which the paper had covered a campus tragedy e-mailed me to say, “You are not the New York Times.” The student went on: “You are not dealing with a vast population of detached observers. You are dealing with a very small, close-knit, highly sensitive population of students.” It was a criticism that is sometimes leveled internally, too: that The Crimson is overly caught up in the theoretical notion that we have a right to publish, and the campus has a right to know, for example, interesting details about students’ personal lives. These same critics contend that we have a special obligation as a campus newspaper to be more sensitive than a professional one, and to hold back on some stories that would damage individuals in the community.

Weeks after that student e-mailed, The Crimson was again embroiled in controversy, this time over our decision to publish a story about a resident tutor being asked to leave her House following a romantic relationship with an undergraduate there. Administrators asked us to kill the piece; the tutor’s friends and students in Quincy said it was simply unnecessary gossip, serving no purpose to the community at large. After all, they said, the tutor was no threat to anyone, and certainly hadn’t committed any crime. The incident was personal business that didn’t belong in the campus newspaper or in the public eye, the argument went.

In the tutor’s case, we thought the rationale was clear: a person in a position of authority in the College had violated a rule that administrators considered important enough that she had to leave. Yes, it would mean the airing of information about her private life in a forum where everyone she knew and worked with could talk about it together around the breakfast table. But if reported sensitively, it bore the promise of shedding light on a larger issue facing Harvard. The Crimson later wrote a longer piece on the uncertainties in College rules on student-tutor relationships, putting in print the fact that many tutors do not follow these rules.

Indeed, I would argue that the risks of The Crimson not publishing stories or names or details in order to protect members of what is certainly a small community are far higher than the risks of publishing. On many subjects, The Crimson is the only source of information about Harvard. Every paper in the world wants to cover Larry Summers’ comments about women in the sciences. But only The Crimson wrote about the string of indecent assaults facing women around campus last year. We were accused of being insensitive when we sent reporters to knock on the doors of the victims, but hearing from them helped other students know vital information about how to protect themselves—where the assault had occurred, what the victims had been doing at the time, and how they got away from their attackers. This was doubly important because, until The Crimson wrote a story about it, police advisory e-mails about these assaults did not go out in a timely fashion and sometimes failed to reach large groups of students at all. When The Crimson did a five-part series on mental health at the College, one that named many students and identified their serious conditions, it helped lead to a reorganization of mental health care at Harvard.

In truth, maybe we do take ourselves a little too seriously, and sometimes underestimate or inadequately consider the impact that our stories have on the lives of our subjects—many of whom are, after all, not even old enough to drink legally. But I think that our attitude—that we should strive to follow the journalistic policies and practices of the best professional papers, like The Times—is one that benefits both The Crimson and the Harvard community.

This mindset means that we care deeply about our product, and that when we make mistakes we take them seriously—we don’t just write them off as to-be-expected in an undergraduate paper. We investigate all potential errors thoroughly and promptly, and emphasize the importance of issuing corrections. We realize that what we write has staying power—it will be searchable in our online archives forever, and if we mess up or misquote someone our mistakes can get picked up and repeated by national and even international papers. Stories like the Harvard graduate student who was convicted of manslaughter have gained worldwide attention. We have no misperception that damage done by a campus newspaper is somehow less problematic than damage done in a professional paper.

With the right to print what a national paper would print comes a serious responsibility: to get things right, to report them sensitively and accurately, and to acknowledge and to atone for mistakes. So we debate for hours on questions like whether to print the names of victims of sensitive crimes or whether we have sufficient knowledge and sourcing to back up a scoop. We consult our lawyers—essentially the only adult advisers we have—not just when we think that a story might be libelous, but also on the ethics of our decisions. Our internal e-mail list is often the site of heated debates over Crimson policies or Crimson stories. Indeed, the issues that the student raised in her e-mail are ones we discuss all the time.

Our editors and writers will always make mistakes in judgment, in part because we are on the whole so inexperienced (and in part because any paper, run by humans, does). Top editors can, of necessity, spend no more than a year in their position; there is never more than four years of institutional memory to guide us. Some mistakes are those of exhaustion or the exigencies of making fast-paced decisions—after hours cooped up in a windowless newsroom, breathing only the aroma of stale pizza and rotting Kong food, that late-night call can seem a little silly, or worse, the next day. And some, of course, are of hubris. Occasionally we prioritize getting every last detail into a story, or writing every story involving an undergraduate’s private life or a contretemps in a student group, citing the community’s “right to know,” even if in retrospect some parts of the story served as little other than gossip.

Yet The Crimson’s focus on the community’s right to know and the dissemination of information over the feelings of individual members or groups within that community on the whole serves both Crimson editors and Harvard well. Any paper must consider its audience and the community it is serving. But service to the community, even one of college kids, does not mean a policy of holding off on stories because that community is small and close-knit. That sort of mindset breeds poor journalism and conditions us to be too worried about campus reaction to write major stories, even ones that could have positive impact.

Writers for The Crimson are, of course, all students, too, and in many cases students who care deeply about their fellow students’ lives. One thing that does differentiate us from professional papers is our proximity: when our reporters write something that they know is going to make readers upset, it’s especially tough, because those readers might be their friends and their Housemates. As our reporters are writing, sometimes they get e-mails from people they know asking them to hold off, and these are difficult to ignore. I don’t think that The Crimson is in any danger of losing its sensitivity to its community, or, in a desperate quest to become more like The New York Times, of abrogating its responsibility to its readership. Though that goal will inevitably never be realized, the effort to realize it is one that is good for The Crimson and for Harvard.

Elisabeth S. Theodore ’05 is a history concentrator in Dunster House. She was managing editor of The Crimson in 2004.

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