Do No Harm: Sensational Stories Endanger Students

This week, the Claremont Independent published a piece headlined “Pitzer College RA: White People Can't Wear Hoop Earrings” in response to a mural painted by three Latinx students on Pitzer College's Free Wall. The piece included the full names of these students, who have since received death threats, leading Pitzer President Melvin Oliver to issue a statement condemning the violent speech.

While the CI's piece included what may be considered “objective” facts, it isn't fair or balanced reporting as a result. The CI makes no claims at objectivity, which can be seen at play in their slogans about being “always right” or “taking back the narrative” from what they see as politically correct (PC) culture. Most CI stories report on events at the 5Cs to advance an agenda; reactionary outrage at the perceived overreaches of PC culture running rampant at liberal arts institutions. The publication's mission is to rile up primarily non-student readers about the perceived absurdity of our community of “snowflakes”.

The Claremont Independent's reporting on the Free Wall was dangerous, predatory, and entirely intentional. Writing and publishing an article, even if it's “free of opinion,” is not passive. Articles are written by people and for people. They are the claimed-to-be-objective products of subjective, biased actions. These actions can be to inform, expose, criticize — anything in service of the audience. 

But when the action directly results in harm to somebody else, especially the subject of the story — especially when that subject is already enduring racism, sexism, and/or other forms of oppression which made their story relevant in the first place — that article is doing work to harm someone.

This is not objective journalism by any definition. Threats, propaganda, perhaps — but it is not worth publishing.

There are ways to minimize this violence to the communities one reports on, or at least reduce the exploitation at play. Including the names of these students was entirely unnecessary for the story and incredibly irresponsible. While the students who painted the mural identified themselves on Pitzer's Student-Talk email chain, it's important to note that this isn't an open public forum and does not give the CI a right to releasing people's private information. It's a listserv of students at the school.

This particular means of identification is in no way a green light to disseminate that information out into the public, where students can be harassed and bullied by the CI's readership. The students who painted the mural opened themselves up to the Pitzer community — not the CI's network of racists.

If you want to be a 'good journalist' — one who 'simply reports the facts' — you must dive in and educate yourself on the history and present moment of the communities, people, and policies you are reporting on. This means actively listening, actively using resources like classes and the internet, and actively allowing your own beliefs to be disproved or reshaped without giving in to knee-jerk defensiveness. It means realizing you might not be the best person to write a certain story, or at least that it won't be easy to do it right.

The CI isn't doing any of these things. They're not facing the challenge of objective journalism head on — they're not even pretending. They're waving a red cape in the face of the whiny, disillusioned bull that is racist America, but they're not in a high-walled arena. Real people, members of their own campus community, are being placed in that bull's path.

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