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Jeneé Osterheldt

Amid planned protests of Ben Shapiro visiting BU, what will ‘fair and balanced’ coverage look like?

The Boston University campus in 2015.Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

Ben Shapiro is coming to Martin Luther King Jr.’s alma mater.

On Wednesday, the Young Americans for Freedom at Boston University will host the right-wing conservative in an event titled, “America Wasn’t Built On Slavery, It Was Built On Freedom.”

At a school where the freshman class is barely 8 percent black, this is the message they think students need. BU is spending almost $13,000 to bring in security.

But students who protest outside cannot bring backpacks or signs on poles or sticks. Students inside are subject to the same rules, and if they engage in prolonged shouting, BU police say they are subject to disciplinary action.


This is what people think free speech looks like in America. Ben Shapiro is being given a school platform to blast his hateful views, while opposing students are only able to quietly protest.

Free speech and the complicated definitions of fair are dividing campuses across the country.

This week, students at Northwestern University came under fire from all directions.

The Daily Northwestern, the student-run paper, was attacked by powerful mainstream media for apologizing to its readers for being insensitive about agency and privacy.

The paper covered a protest of a recent appearance by former attorney general and pusher of supremacist ideals Jeff Sessions. Photos of students were published. Journalists used the student directory to text students for comment. There was a fear of safety and a fear of disciplinary action — especially for marginalized students — to be outed publicly as activists. In response to that, the paper apologized and deleted photos from social media, and removed a source’s name.

Conservative writer Ben Shapiro.Rich Pedroncelli/file/Associated Press

Here’s the thing: The student journalists were doing their jobs. It is their duty to report the news, to find the sources, to make the calls, and to ask for quotes.


But there’s nothing wrong with the student paper wanting to acknowledge a lack of empathy in the process. And it’s understandable the student readers were worried about their safety in this climate — especially when we’re talking about racism, sexism, xenophobia, homophobia, and the like. It’s complicated.

Troy Closson, editor-in-chief of The Daily Northwestern, is only its third black leader in more than 135 years of publication.

“Being in this role and balancing our coverage and the role of this paper on campus with my racial identity — and knowing how our paper has historically failed students of color, and particularly black students, has been incredibly challenging to navigate,” he tweeted Monday.

The balancing act is impossible. Journalists can pretend it’s straightforward, but neutrality is harmful when we are talking about oppression. To be unbiased in the face of supremacy is to give supremacists power.

In September, Harvard students protested the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement. The Crimson, the campus paper, covered the event. After the protest, journalists reached out to the agency for comment. ICE did not respond.

Students felt this was a betrayal considering the surveillance tactics ICE uses to displace undocumented people in America.

It is an understandable concern that drawing ICE’s attention to a story about students protesting them, many of whom could be undocumented, might further put the students at risk.

Kristine E. Guillaume, the Crimson’s president, and Angela N. Fu, its managing editor, wrote to readers, explaining journalistic standard practice:


At stake here, we believe, is one of the core tenets that defines America’s free and independent press: the right — and prerogative — of reporters to contact any person or organization relevant to a story to seek that entity’s comment and view of what transpired. This ensures the article is as thorough, balanced, and unbiased toward any particular viewpoint as possible. 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.

The Crimson nailed it. It is important that we have unbiased reporting in our publications.

Balance is necessary. And in this particular story, they did not disclose any students’ identity or status. They waited until after the protest to even reach out to ICE.

But the students’ fears are valid. What’s happening at colleges across the country should force us to examine what it means to be unbiased.

If one group of people is stuck sitting on the ground with tape on their mouths, while the other is on a stage with microphones in their hands, what’s fair is to give the people on the ground a step to stand on, to have a speaker for them to plug into, and to remove the bind. That’s balance. But even then, those on stage have had the advantage much longer.


In a country that was very much built on slavery to ensure the empowerment of white people, and that has done it so thoroughly we are still fighting the injustice of it today, is giving voice to supremacist viewpoints fair and balanced?

For as long as journalism has existed, the industry has been largely white. The media has given priority to stories featuring white people. We see it when little white girls go missing and it’s national news. Black girls go missing and Black Twitter has to make them go viral before outlets care. For decades, the media vilified the victims of brutality instead of interrogating the police.

While the benefit of the doubt readily goes to white people, journalism has been used as a tool to disenfranchise those on the losing end of oppression. And so has freedom of speech, often used as a free pass for supremacy.

To see Ben Shapiro and Jeff Sessions getting megaphones on campuses is startling. Is it just to see New England Law Boston appoint someone like Scott Brown as dean and president of a law school?

The Daily Northwestern, like the Crimson, did what journalists have always done: their jobs.

“We need more voices from different backgrounds in our newsrooms helping to provide perspective on our coverage,” Northwestern University dean Charles Whitaker said in a statement defending the paper.

“But regardless of their own identities, our student journalists must be allowed — and must have the courage — to cover our community freely and unfettered by harassment each time members of the community feel they have been wronged.”


He’s right. And wrong.

To go unchecked by people you may have hurt is not what fair and balanced looks like.

Journalists speak truth to power. They cannot expect those who feel disenfranchised by the media to not speak out.

Journalism is under attack in America in ways that are horrifying. The president threatens our safety. His followers demean us.

But what we’ve seen across college campuses is not an anti-media movement. It’s a hunger for understanding, for empathy, for an acknowledgment that we adhere to perhaps too strict a code of what it means to be fair and balanced in a country where the scales have never seen an even day.

If we can’t at least interrogate the reality of that, whose truth are we telling?

Correction: An earlier version of this story mischaracterized the limitations on shouting by student protesters. Students were discouraged from shouting inside.

Jeneé Osterheldt can be reached at jenee.osterheldt@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @sincerelyjenee.