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Columns

Student Journalism and Student Voice

Reflecting on the role of student newspapers in a university

By SANDRA Y.L. KORN

After seven semesters on The Crimson’s editorial board, including two as an op-ed editor, I would like to use my very last piece as a Crimson columnist to reflect on the role of student journalism at Harvard.

Harvard’s University-funded publication, the Gazette, publicizes University press releases and provides rosy coverage of faculty research and student extracurricular work. The Harvard Magazine, founded in 1898 as the “independent” source for Harvard news, has a strong relationship with the University (one third of its operating revenue is University-funded) but advertises that “the magazine is not published with the aim of promoting financial donations to the University, as development and other publications properly are.”

The Harvard Crimson, then, has a unique position at our university. Founded in 1873, The Crimson remains the oldest continuously published daily college newspaper in the United States. Though our school has no undergraduate journalism or communications degree option, many students devote hours each night to putting out a crisp periodical. Unique among other (nonetheless worthy) student publications, The Crimson is not only prolific but also well-read—and it is delivered each morning to the door-baskets of first-years, the dining halls of upper-class students, and the desks of Harvard’s administrators.

During the few years that I’ve been here, I have seen the Crimson’s reporting, with nuance and care, bring significant topics into campus conversation. In so doing, the paper has often given a platform to those whose voices might not otherwise be heard.

The campus community reads and discusses pieces written by students who have struggled with the University’s response to their sexual assault or mental illness, by workers at Harvard asking for fair and just treatment, and by Harvard’s neighbors asking for productive community engagement. Timely reporting alerts readers about everything from administrative scandals to student and faculty activism. Long-form scrutinies are an opportunity for student reporters to explore multifaceted issues of campus life–from unpaid internships on the mean streets of New York to race and belonging here on the Yard. These investigations are critical to raising the consciousness of the student body, as we have seen with the “I Too Am Harvard” and the “Our Harvard Can Do Better” campaigns.

Even more importantly, The Crimson’s op-eds can catalyze political change. In October 2012, The Crimson published an op-ed titled “Israel versus No. 2 Pencils,” in which Lena K. Awwad ’13 and Shatha I. Hussein ’14 revealed that Israeli authorities had held up that year’s SAT tests, preventing Palestinian students in the West Bank from taking the exam on time. The two authors, who had both graduated from Ramallah Friends School, contextualized this event in broader Palestinian access to secondary and higher education. They wrote, “By depriving this year’s RFS seniors the ability to take the SAT, and more broadly hurting Palestinian education, Israel is jeopardizing the academic trajectories of future leaders.” In response to publicity that op-ed helped generate, the White House became involved and Palestinian students got to sit for the SAT. As I have personally learned in the past few months, publishing your opinion in your school newspaper can reach an audience far beyond the walls of our university.

Of course, The Crimson’s leadership changes every year, and our student newspaper’s approach to journalism and relationship with the university constantly evolve. I am disappointed that The Crimson’s recent editorials direct too equable a gaze at the status quo.

Three years ago, writing about the forthcoming capital campaign, we found something to critique in every single one of the university’s actions: We opined on everything from where Harvard should direct its priorities to the scope of the university community. The Crimson Staff wrote, “[Harvard’s] vision should not be as inward-looking as it currently is; although the capital campaign should include internal improvements, it must prioritize above all else resuming development on the Allston campus and restoring the local community.”

Our tone has now changed: See, for example, last fall’s editorial on the capital campaign, where we declared simply that “The capital campaign requires our unqualified support” and encouraged students and alums to “give generously.” Indeed, to me, the Crimson Staff today seems rather interested in affirming the right of the administration to do whatever it deems appropriate: “Harvard’s recent tuition increase is largely appropriate.” Harvard signing on to the symbolic United Nations Principles for Responsible Investment “will allow careful analysis of investments and strategies without total industry divestment.” Harvard need not go “beyond any legal obligation” to guarantee workers at the DoubleTree Hotel in Allston the right to unionize with employer neutrality.

This is a shame. Just two years ago, the Crimson Staff wrote an editorial about the role of student journalism, noting proudly that The Crimson “played a part in encouraging [the decision of Harvard Management Company not to reinvest in HEI Hotels and Resorts] through sustained coverage of these accusations as well as repeated calls to investigate the allegations.” We wrote that students “are best in position to experience the effects of the university’s policies and to comment candidly on them,” and that because of this perspective, student journalism “serves as a check on the institutional abuse of power.” I wholeheartedly agree.

You can love this university and still want it to treat its students, workers, and the outside world more justly. By focusing on University policies and student organization practices—and adopting a respectful yet critical perspective—student journalists, whether reporters, columnists, or editorial writers, can influence the way Harvard runs.


Sandra Y.L. Korn ’14, a Crimson editorial writer, is a joint history of science and studies of women, gender, and sexuality concentrator in Eliot House.

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