In 2019, college newspapers became the focus of intense debate over the limits of freedom of the press. Controversies at the Harvard Crimson and the Daily Northwestern sparked national conversations among professional journalists and mass communication educators. Other controversies at my school, Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey, received less attention yet also raised important questions about how traditional journalism concepts will fare in an increasingly diverse and polarized society.
At Harvard, a Crimson article on a student protest against US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) sparked a firestorm in September 2019 after the reporter noted that the federal agency had not responded to a request for comment. That provoked many students to call for a boycott of the Crimson.
“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,” read a petition from Act on a Dream, the student group that organized the protest. “In this political climate, a request for comment is virtually the same as tipping them off, regardless of how they are contacted.”
The outreach to ICE came after the protest, and the paper did not give the agency any student names. Nonetheless, the petition drew more than a thousand signatures, the undergraduate student government voted by a slim majority to back it, and current and former editors of the Crimson even organized a picket against the paper.
Editor-in-Chief Kristine Guillaume, the first Black woman to head the Crimson, defended the paper. “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,” she said in a statement.
At the Daily Northwestern, a similar furor arose from a November 2019 article on students protesting a campus speech by former US attorney general Jeff Sessions. Activists tried to push through a door into the lecture hall, and campus police forcibly removed several protesters. The paper’s photographer posted photos to social media of students being knocked to the ground, and reporters used the campus directory to seek comment from participating students. The university threatened disciplinary action against some protesters. Within days, the paper’s editor-in-chief, Troy Closson, published an apology for coverage that was invasive and “hurt students.” Closson was only the third Black editor-in-chief in the paper’s history. His apology provoked backlash from conservatives and free speech defenders, with articles appearing in the Washington Post, the New York Times, and Newsweek.
Two similar examples occurred around the same time at the Rutgers Daily Targum, the second-oldest student newspaper in the country. In an end-of-semester issue in December 2019, the Targum featured an article on the work of the Central Jersey Climate Coalition campus chapter. The photo accompanying the story showed a campus rally held the previous day against racism and for Black solidarity, with the caption noting that Climate Coalition members had endorsed and participated in that rally. But there was no separate coverage about the anti-racism rally itself. The campus NAACP and Black Lives Matter chapters condemned the paper’s slight, and there were even threats of a boycott. In this case, the editors met with the groups, and Editor-in-Chief Priyanka Bansal, the first Indian American to hold that post in the paper’s history, issued a statement that said, in part, “The Targum takes responsibility and apologizes for the disconnect between the photo and the body text of this article.”
A few weeks earlier, the Targum had also covered an event on Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement. Many students from China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan attend Rutgers, and they often fall on different sides of the movement. Given the event’s sensitivity, organizers stated at the start that the student newspaper was covering the event, and if anyone felt uncomfortable about being photographed, they should make that clear to the reporters. No one did. One student who subsequently appeared in a photo claimed his privacy had been violated and demanded the photo be removed from the paper’s website. In this case, the paper declined to apologize.
So, what do these campus press battles signify? Are student journalists becoming complicit, as some argue, in their own censorship? Are they allowing pressure from activists to shape their coverage? Are principles of independent journalism and free speech under assault?
Anyone who has carefully studied the history of US news media knows that partisanship, class, race, and gender biases have always infused the press and that coverage has often been shaped behind closed doors by those with the greatest power. People of color have been systematically excluded from the press, both in general society and on college campuses. But over the past several decades, colleges have become more diverse in their ethnic, racial, and class composition. All three campus newspapers, as I noted, had editors-in-chief of color. Campus diversity has led to more frequent and intense clashes over political narratives. At the same time, the increasing polarization of our society and, in recent years, the clear increase in repressive government actions (whether by police, federal agencies such as ICE, or authoritarian governments abroad) have produced greater fear and insecurity among students of color. These are real issues. They will not go away by repeating rote exhortations to respect free speech or freedom of the press.
Part of being a truly responsible journalist in a world where even advanced democracies have become more authoritarian and xenophobic is learning to report the facts while also protecting the most vulnerable and marginalized from the forces of reaction. In other words, student journalists must be responsible to real people, not simply to abstract concepts. Student journalists, after all, unlike most big-city professional reporters, often live among and socialize with the very people they cover. That reality should cause a greater sensitivity to impacts of their coverage on others. Some simple advice would be to pay attention in any conflict to the concerns of the least powerful. It’s not always an easy task to balance journalistic ethics with accountability to all sectors of your community, but we need to encourage and salute the brave students who are struggling every day to get it right.