Was it “Grave Insensitivity” or Balanced Reporting?

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Harvard University’s daily student newspaper, The Harvard Crimson, has come under fire after it contacted U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) for a comment following a campus protest against ICE immigration policies. On September 12, Act on a Dream, a Harvard-based student immigration advocacy group, held a rally at which it called for ICE to be abolished. The Crimson covered the rally and later reached out to ICE officials for comment as part of its reporting on the protest.

Act on a Dream and other student organizations attacked the paper’s decision, asserting that it should not have contacted ICE because of its “long history of surveillance and retaliating against those who speak out against them.” Students were quoted in the story and identified, and photos of students were used. The group wrote a petition to get the paper to no longer contact ICE for comment which, as of this writing, has gathered 650 student signatures.

In the petition, Act on a Dream expressed concern that by contacting ICE, the paper compromised the identities of some students who might be targeted for action by ICE officers. The organization said that the paper “has an obligation, as a student news publication, to consider the safety of the students they are reporting on. As our fellow peers, they have displayed a grave insensitivity in the handling of reporting on undocumented individuals.” The paper did not contact ICE during the rally; it did so after the event, in the process of writing the story.

Crimson Managing Editor Angela Fu defended the decision to reach out to ICE, saying the paper follows a “commonly accepted set of journalistic standards, similar to those followed by professional news organizations big and small.” She added, “Foremost among those standards is the belief that every party named in a story has a right to comment or contest criticism leveled against them.”

It could be argued that Fu is right; asking for comment by all parties involved in a story, whether they are present at an event or not, is considered proper journalistic procedure. It’s simply a matter of balanced reportage. But in this case, did the pursuit of balanced reporting put student safety at risk?

Sources: nbcnews.com; thecrimson.com

In Political Ads, Do Two Wrongs Make a Right?

Warren Facebook AdLast week the political campaign of 2020 Democratic presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren “intentionally” posted an ad containing false claims on Facebook as a way to test the social media platform’s policies on political advertising. On Twitter, Warren announced to her followers, “We intentionally made a Facebook ad with false claims and submitted it to Facebook’s ad platform to see if it’d be approved. It got approved quickly and the ad is now running on Facebook.” The ad, shown above or at left, ran under the headline “Breaking news: Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook just endorsed Donald Trump for re-election,” a claim that the ad itself admitted wasn’t true. “You’re probably shocked, and you might be thinking,” the ad continued, “‘how could this possibly be true?’ Well, it’s not. (Sorry.) But what Zuckerberg *has* done is given Donald Trump free rein to lie on his platform––and then to pay Facebook gobs of money to push out their lies to American voters.”

The “free rein” Warren was referring to, according to The New York Times, was the recent purchase of ads across social media by Trump’s campaign that accused another Democratic presidential candidate, Joseph Biden, of corruption in Ukraine. That ad, viewed more than five million times on Facebook, falsely said that Biden offered $1 billion to Ukrainian officials to remove a prosecutor who was overseeing an investigation of a company associated with Biden’s son Hunter Biden. (One thorough assessment of the truthfulness of the Trump ad was published on the website FactCheck.org.) This past week, the Biden campaign demanded that Facebook, Twitter and YouTube take down the ad. Facebook refused, telling the Biden campaign that it would keep the Trump ad up because of its belief that statements by politicians add to important discourse and are newsworthy, even if they are false. Facebook has said that it allows ads made by politicians themselves (that is, their political campaigns), even if they are believed to be false, but scrutinizes ads for candidates made by third parties. Twitter and YouTube also kept the ad online.

That social media may be allowing ads to be run that are demonstrably false is one important issue. CNN and NBCUniversal refused to run the Trump campaign’s false ad. However, another important issue is Warren’s decision to counter one false ad with another. Warren claims her ad was meant to reveal Facebook’s preference of profit over truthfulness. “Facebook holds incredible power to affect elections and our national debate. They’ve decided to let political figures lie to you—even about Facebook itself—while their executives and their investors get even richer off the ads containing these lies,” she tweeted.

Although she may have had good intentions in submitting the ad to Facebook, there is something unsettling about countering falsity with falsity; as the old adage goes, “two wrongs don’t make a right.” Of course, most people would agree that false claims made in political advertising should be identified and brought to light. Commenting on the Warren ad, Subramaniam Vincent, Director of Journalism and Media Ethics at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University, said in a tweet, “we need more ways for counter-speech to debunk deceptive speech in front of a real public.” Perhaps it’s best that “counter-speech” not resort to deception in order to counter deception. If the intentional airing of falsities to address prior falsities becomes acceptable in political discourse, then where does the normalizing of falsity end? To fight the propagation of such false advertising, educating the public seems like a logical solution; but what if such efforts fall on deaf ears? What should be done here?

Sources: cnet.com; nytimes.com