The leaders of Harvard University’s student newspaper defended a basic tenet of journalism Tuesday amid a swirl of controversy on campus.
After reporters for The Crimson attended a Sept. 12 protest on campus that called for the abolition of US Immigration and Customs Enforcement, they reached out to ICE to allow the government agency to respond to the criticism.
ICE didn’t respond to the inquiry, and the reporters included a sentence noting that in their report published the next day.
In the weeks since, members of the student-led immigration advocacy group that organized the protest, Act on a Dream, have expressed their disagreement with the student journalists’ decision to seek comment from ICE and have started a petition to demand The Crimson not contact ICE for comment in its future reporting.
“We are extremely disappointed in the cultural insensitivity displayed by The Crimson’s policy to reach out to ICE, a government agency with a long history of surveilling and retaliating against those who speak out against them,” says the petition, which had collected more than 670 signatures by Wednesday morning. “In this political climate, a request for comment is virtually the same as tipping them off, regardless of how they are contacted.”
The petition calls for a policy change, an apology, and a declaration of The Crimson’s “commitment to protecting undocumented students on campus.”
Kristine E. Guillaume, The Crimson’s president, and Angela N. Fu, its managing editor, responded with a note to readers Tuesday defending the reporters’ request for comment from ICE and explaining that it is standard practice across the journalism profession to allow people and organizations that are criticized a chance to respond.
Guillaume and Fu said The Crimson operates on “the belief that every party named in a story has a right to comment or contest criticism leveled against them. That’s why our reporters always make every effort to contact the individuals and institutions we write about — administrators, students, alumni, campus organizations, and yes, government agencies — before any story goes to press. We believe that this is the best way to ensure the integrity, fairness, and accuracy of our reporting.”
They explained that their reporters had contacted an ICE spokesman after the protest was concluded and “did not provide the names or immigration statuses of any individual at the protest. We did not give ICE forewarning of the protest, nor did we seek to interfere with the protest as it was occuring. Indeed, it is The Crimson’s practice to wait until a protest concludes before asking for comment from the target of the protest — a rule which was followed here.”
Guillaume and Fu defended the right of journalists to seek comment from any relevant party and said The Crimson’s practices have been reviewed and affirmed by the Student Press Law Center and the Society of Professional Journalists.
“A world where news outlets categorically refuse to contact certain kinds of sources — a world where news outlets let third-party groups dictate the terms of their coverage — is a less informed, less accurate, and ultimately less democratic world,” they wrote.
In an e-mail to the Globe on Wednesday morning, Guilllaume declined to comment further, saying the note to readers was their statement on the matter.
Act on a Dream did not immediately respond to a request for comment.