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Wednesday, November 30, 2005

news without context: what the Crimson doesn't know, we don't know

Members of the Undergraduate Council, similar to members of political student groups across campus, are continually frustrated with the shallowness of the Crimson's reporting on student politics. The Crimson, it seems, believes that it's role in such things (the UC, the Dems/GOP, BSA, Fuerza, SAA, AAA, etc.) is to show up, transcribe the obvious "facts," and write them down in the paper. This way, the students can know what happened but not know why it happened, who did it and how, and why in the world they should care.

The Crimson has now run four stories on the UC race in the last two and a half weeks. Most students, at this point, will know only what they've read in the Crimson, maybe they'll have spent a few minutes at each of the websites. But, for most, the Crimson will be the only non-campaign source of information they will get throughout this week and a half journey. For those of us who follow what’s actually going on, the gap between the news coverage and the political reality is wide enough to drive a Buick through. The fact that student opinion forms around this alternative reality of out of context quotations that lack analysis and background, ticky tack campaign violations and non-controversies, and unquestioned declarations of resume points is not reassuring for those of us who believe in some sort of student democracy.

Later in the post, I’ll note a few things that it hasn’t picked up on, first, let’s look at what it has. With 100% retention, then, what would the informed voter know at this point?(things we do know, and things we should know in expanded post)

If you're short on time, skip down to the bold.

From story 1, they'll learn that the Haddock/Riley and Voith/Gadgil tickets had formed, they'll learn that some still think Connor Wilson might run (he tried), they'll get a sentence or two on each of the individual's UC history (Haddock worked on libraries, ran against Gadgil; Gadgil worked on CUE and the Women's Center; Voith worked on the Afterparty and Yale Shuttles (ouch); Riley quit the council but worked on interhouse transfers and peer advising). Ok, so we have about two resume points each.

From story 2, they'll learn of the Grimeland/Hadfield ticket (including Grimeland's Norwegian Army service and Hadfield's failure to get on the Council in the fall) and they'll get about 2/3 of the story on the fact that some dumb ass on Voith's campaign bough HaddockRiley.com, Haddock got up in arms, and Voith gave him the URL.

From story 3, they'll learn a little about the normal UC news (CLC replacement tabled, South Asian Studies bill passed, etc.), and then find out that the first day of campaigning included a few possible violations that were a result of accidentally putting a poster on a Proctor board.

From story 4, ironically titled "Council Hopefulls Present Platform", they'll get to hear about prepared answers to six questions, fairly useless quips from each of the candidates, and some random out of context proposals from each of the tickets about funding alcohol-free parties, getting students access to coursepacks, and forming new committees to look into things.

So where does this leave us? A student, who cares enough to memorize each of the four news pieces they've read, will know: two or three bullet points about each candidate, some ticky tack news about websites and errant posters, and some random quotes about random positions only just barely related to student health.

What they don't know is that there is one major question in this campaign that the two major tickets widely disagree on: the role of the Council in social planning. Voith/Gadgil believe that the UC should create a social programming board in place of one of the three committees (CLC) that is separate from the UC and coordinates with the administration. The Haddock/Riley ticket wants to "get the UC out of the social programming business" and leave it to the administration.

They don't know that Haddock was unsure about this issue, proposed a referendum to "take this decision to the students," and then scrapped his direct-democracy ideals and took a firm position that strangely lines up with the Crimson's staff position and the opinion that his campaign manager forcefully expressed in the Indy over a month and a half ago. So much for direct democracy...

Do students know that all of the candidates voted for a bill on Monday night to not only create a standing committee to advocate for South Asian Studies, but also to automatically put unelected members of South Asian Association on the committee, and then promptly went to meet with the South Asian Association about getting endorsements for the election?

Do student know that a major part of the two main candidacies will be each ticket mobilizing their respective Final/Social Club: Voith is mobilizing the Phoenix, Gadgil the Seneca, and most likely Riley the Isis. I know this from talking to the candidates themselves and looking at the people in their facebook groups and in front of the Science Center.

Do students have any sense of what people think of these candidates other than what the candidates say about themselves?

Has the Crimson reported the very interesting news that the Council is fairly split, with about 14 members supporting Haddock and 9 supporting Voith?

(Alright, the rhetorical question format is lame. But I'm not rewriting all of that...)

These are all things an informed electorate should know. And, quick frankly, none of these things require anything other than a few phone calls, a little basic research, and the facebook to figure out. The Crimson, of course, will say that it is holding off on the meat of its coverage until after the debate, because that's when students start to pay attention. But, without the necessary context for understanding any of this, its unclear to me how any student can begin to analyze the information that comes out of a debate, understand whether or not an accusation or claim is accurate and what motivates that candidate to make that claim. It's also unclear to me that even debate coverage gets into any serious analysis of ideas or context that can inform a voter.

The problem is, the Crimson wants to send its good reporters, the people who believe in research and scoops, who want to understand context and motivations, to cover the Deans in University Hall, and that's about it. In assigning talented and experienced reporters they ignore the fact that often the politics that matters most to people is the politics that they're involved in: ethnic groups, political groups, service groups, student government. University Hall is important, but not all-important. Students need to have a framework for understanding their community, especially when they're making decisions about its future. The Crimson isn't giving it, which is why blogs like this and Team Zebra are popping up to offer analysis.

Please remember CC's policy on anonymous comments related to the UC campaigns.


At 2:02 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

At 2:42 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

At 2:44 PM, Blogger andrew golis said...

While I value the opinion that was above posted, and wish it had a name attached, I have deleted it in accordance with the rule that the writer acknowledged and I have tried to make clear. I really would have rather left it and responded to it, but I simply can't get into the business of making value judgments because I will then place myself as a biased censor rather than simply an enforcer of set rules. This may seem silly, but hopefully readers understand.

I would greatly appreciate it if the above commenter were willing to repost and attach their name.

At 2:46 PM, Blogger andrew golis said...

I've deleted a second comment for the same reason.

I will repost the link to my anonymous comments policy, I apologize for not putting it in originally.

Again, please repost with a name attached!

At 2:58 PM, Blogger Gary Freedman said...

Wow, a Harvard blog. Am I smart enough to even be reading this stuff?

At 3:07 PM, Blogger Neeraj "Richie" Banerji said...

I guess not, since you actually asked that question.

At 3:45 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

OK, clearly I come to Cambridge Common too much because I read the first anonymous comment and it was online for 40 minutes while I was in section. :P

I think you are going too far with applying this policy. You wrote, "When discussing UC candidates and campaigns, posters will be required to attach a name." The message wasn't about a candidate or a campaign at all (except perhaps generally "the campaign.")

I think media criticism (or in anonymous' case, poorly-reasoned media support) goes beyond the confines of the candidate and campaign gossip that you're trying to prevent. If the anonymous poster had been responding to a tirade against shoddy New York Times reporting, he probably wouldn't have had to change more than a word or two in the response. Oh, and The Crimson sucks, UC campaign season or not. ;)
- Ben Milder

At 3:53 PM, Blogger andrew golis said...

I take your point, both were responses to my criticism of the Crimson. At the same time, the line is very blurry, and I'm not sure where I would draw it. What if they were criticizing my coverage because it helps/hurts on of the candidates? What if, as with the second comment, they were questioning issues I brought up about two of the tickets (and one ticket more than another)?

I'm trying to be as even-handed as possible, and while I realize that may come off as a bit Draconian at times, I'd rather be criticized for being uniformly Draconian than for being a biased censor of my readers...

At 3:58 PM, Blogger Neeraj "Richie" Banerji said...

Golis, if you don't want objectionable anonymous postings here you should just forward them over to us at Team Zebra. We are happy to make fun of blog trolls and open up a can of whoop-ass every time our unbiased neutrality is questioned. We heap scorn on all the campaigns equally, and some anonymous comments would definitely mix it up as far as our cannon fodder is concerned, lol.

At 4:54 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

And now to respond to the actual post... :)

You speak words of truth, Andrew. I cringe with every new "article" that comes out. The anonymous commenter said that only UC insiders would be interested in campaign details. Rumors and inside-baseball are indeed a great use of the blogs, but the commenter missed the point that the Crimson hasn't even laid out the basic issues at stake for readers. And Crimson readers can't become interested or engaged in the election process if the coverage is always boring, sloppy, and uninformative.

I don't think we can do much to change how the new board assigns UC coverage, at least not in time to affect this election. But I do think that we can try to reach out to the individual writers and help them get a better idea of what's going on; the writers are simply unseasoned, not bad. Perhaps send a link to Cambridge Common. It's clear that the writer of the most recent piece, Anna Tong, has no grasp of the election dynamics or the issues at stake. For example, Magnus receives two direct quotes while Voith gets none. That's not really her fault, though, as she is apparently a freshman. If we consistently point out the inaccuracies or ways for improvement in a constructive manner, as opposed to just criticizing from afar, I think these Crimson compers could turn into real reporters within a few days. You could try putting every Crimson article up here, pick it apart, and then send a friendly link to the writer.

This is the same problem we had with the MSM in the presidential elections last year. It seems that the establishment media, wherever or whatever that may be, is always criminally ill-equipped to provide voters with substantive issue discussion and perspective.

Personally, I think the lack of issue coverage helps Voith. Haddock's plan for social event funds is sure to be popular with students, after everything that's happened. I think students can relate to Haddock's simple "give money to your favorite club and HoCo" message much better than Voith's half-formed and confusing ideas.

If I understand correctly, Voith's pitch is that because of the Pep Rally, which now might happen annually, all the other failed events are water under the bridge and we should have a Student Events Council. And a Campus Life Committee. Try working through that logic, let alone having it come across in a sentence in a Crimson article vs. the Haddock plan.

-Ben Milder

At 11:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"If we consistently point out the inaccuracies or ways for improvement in a constructive manner, as opposed to just criticizing from afar, I think these Crimson compers could turn into real reporters within a few days. You could try putting every Crimson article up here, pick it apart, and then send a friendly link to the writer."

Having covered uc elections last year as a comper, I can firmly say that this would be neither appreciated nor helpful.
Back up off the freshmen.
-Liz Goodwin


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