In light of the controversy regarding a campus-wide senator’s photo and the Guardian’s poor reporting, we wish to issue an apology and encourage more dialogue between our staff and the student body.Written by Angela Chen
02 May 2012
For years, the Opinion section of the Thursday issue has been reserved for editorials, where the Guardian Editorial Board chimes in on everything from high-speed rail to administrative policies and “sensitive topics.” We routinely advocate outreach and transparency, suggesting that open access to information and a willingness to cooperate go a long way.
But we’ve rarely done outreach of our own. And now, as the Guardian is re-structuring and institutionalizing many of its formerly non-existent guidelines, it’s time to solicit opinion about our responsibilities and what we should do when reporting on issues — politics, campus climate —that people are afraid to touch.
Last Thursday, April 27, the Guardian published an article titled “Photo of A.S. Senator Draws Controversy,” regarding the reaction to a photo of current Campus-wide Senator Ashton Cohen dressed in Arab garb. The article, which has since been taken offline for the reasons outlined below, included quotes calling Cohen a racist and an Islamophobe.
First, corrections: The clothing was not traditional Muslim clothing (as suggested by the subhead), but Arab clothing; the two terms are not interchangeable. This is a failure of reporting on our part, an example of our need to be more informed and a problem that I take responsibility for because it is always the duty of the reporter and editor to have the proper background knowledge. To that end, I’ve spoken with the reporter, and met with members of the Student Affirmative Action Committee to learn more about this culturally sensitive issue so we can better report in the future.
Another problem was the tone of the article. When citing Arab Student Union member Noor El-Annan, reporter Nicole Chan politicized the issue by associating El-Annan’s statements with Students for Justice in Palestine and implying that this situation was SJP versus Cohen — a stance that has been adopted by others (see this issue’s Letter to the Editor). Cohen, who is Jewish, voted against the resolution to divest from companies involved in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; this undoubtedly plays into this issue, as he says that several people have linked the photo to his background and divestment. But regardless of the pro-divestment members who contacted Cohen, it is incorrect to assume that El-Annan was speaking on behalf of the political movement of divestment when she was speaking, more specifically, about an cultural issue.
Cohen had serious concerns as well. The article paints him in a negative light, and words like “Islamophobe” and “racist” are words that no one wants to be associated with in SEO searches. These are the words of a source, and not the Guardian or the reporter, but in the age of Google searches, it’s imperative to provide proper context and avoid scapegoating. Both are more important than ever when stories are posted online and quickly become fodder for non-affiliates on both sides to read and attack; the article provided neither. Cohen and El-Annan have been attacked over the article, and for that, and the mistakes in the article, I sincerely apologize to both.
In light of the poorly worded article, I offered both parties involved a chance to submit a guest commentary on any aspect of the issue; Cohen accepted, and his commentary provides background that we did not. He discusses his past outreach and efforts to rectify the situation. It is not our role to cast judgment on either side of the issue, but by not soliciting and including this information, the article became seriously skewed.
This is not the first time the Guardian has slipped when covering sensitive issues. In the past, inconsistent editorial guidelines have forced our hand in printing guest commentaries and advertisements that we did not endorse. So, as we’re creating these guidelines, we’d like feedback from those we cover and those we write for: How can we best cover highly controversial issues in a neutral way? How can we avoid scapegoating individuals without avoiding names? When we make mistakes that contribute to a misunderstanding, how should we rectify the situation?
And, perhaps most relevant: What is the role, if any, of the Guardian in “protecting” students?
Two years ago, when reporting on the Compton Cookout, we chose to publish on the front page the name of the student (and his affiliation with Pi Kappa Alpha) who hosted the party.
I wrote the article, and I will never forget the call from said student telling my then-18-year-old freshman self that I had ruined his life and caused him to leave San Diego for Los Angeles.
I am not comparing Cohen’s actions or their implications to the Cookout, only the Guardian’s treatment of the issue. It was not factually inaccurate to print that the student hosted the party, just as it was not inaccurate to name Cohen.
But, just as we left out context in this case, we did the same two years ago. Pi Kappa Alpha had not sanctioned the event, said student was not the only person who attended and he was not obviously single-handedly responsible for the events of the Compton Cookout or racism at UCSD. Yet, as the only one explicitly named, he still received multiple threats and now, when you Google his name, autofill still suggests “Compton Cookout” as a related search.
Most student leaders whom we quote — including both Cohen and El-Annan — are public figures that have accepted a role that openly makes them targets for criticism. But the reality — one confirmed by the emails we get each month from long-ago students asking us to take down 1994 articles about them — is that these are still student leaders, not seasoned politicans. And when student journalists report on student leaders, there’s room for bad articles, even if there’s no bad intentions.
The Guardian will not cease reporting on issues of campus climate or dance around the subject of who and why. It is not our job to ensure that students don’t say things that they will regret in a decade, and many other students our age (ahem, Alexandra Wallace) have been dragged through the mud.
I’d like to thank both Cohen and El-Annan for contacting me, and encourage everyone to contact us with corrections, problems and inquiries. It’s how we stay relevant and useful.
And it keeps us honest. Thank you.