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Thursday, December 01, 2005

media relations

Also well below World AIDS Day on the global relevance scale, but interesting nonetheless: yesterday the Harvard Foundation hosted a fairly well-attended town hall meeting titled “Fair and Balanced? Cultural and Ethnic Sensitivity in Campus Media,” sparked by the controversial Fulla doll parody ad the Salient ran a little while back. Unfortunately, the discussion was mostly scattered and unproductive, as people spoke to but often jumbled these major themes:

-Whether “there’s a line that shouldn’t be crossed” in expressing potentially offensive opinions in campus media, and if it shouldn’t, why it shouldn’t
-How humor complicates opinion writing in campus media
-The responsibility of campus publications like the Crimson to report, and report fairly, on events sponsored by cultural organizations on campus
-The need for more diversity on the Crimson staff itself
(more in expanded post)

The first half of the discussion was geared toward the specific Salient ad. Salient editor Travis Kavulla was on the defensive in a major way, and I thought he did a decent job. He explained that the ad was meant to be provocative; that while it self-consciously exaggerated certain realities, those realities nevertheless exist (for instance, as support for the “Let’s push Israel into the sea!” line in the ad, he cited the President of Iran’s public anti-Israel statements); and that it’s unfair to connect the Salient, as some in the audience did, to the physically threatening anti-Muslim intimidation a Harvard student experienced recently.

Also claiming that the Salient intended for the ad to spark conversations that could reveal that “the Islamic world may not be as rosy as the Harvard Islamic Society would paint it,” Travis noted that the very discussion we were having testified to the Salient’s success in inspiring campus-wide dialogue.

But if the Salient’s aim really was to get people talking about Islam, it mainly failed. The town hall meeting wasn’t focusing on debating issues in the Muslim world—instead, it centered on media responsibility and offensiveness. People criticized the ad for making “broad generalizations” about an already misunderstood religion, and came pretty close at times to accusing Travis of outright bigotry. Attendees also threw around the term “journalistic responsibility” a lot—one student implied that the Salient has a duty to insure that its readership is well-educated enough on issues to be able to understand the nuances of parody pieces it runs.

While I can sympathize with the indignation expressed at the meeting, I thought most of what was said was just a tad off the mark. It’s not the Salient’s responsibility to make sure readers are informed about Muslim culture before consuming their publication. And the problem wasn’t so much that the ad made broad generalizations—people can discuss and correct those—but that the generalizations were couched in humor. Publications should be free to print controversial opinions, but disguising those opinions in half-serious, potentially offensive parodies without offering supplemental clarification just comes off as cowardly. It makes for an easy cop-out: ‘well of course we don’t actually believe THAT; anyone can see that’s ridiculous.’ The Salient team should be allowed to seem cowardly if it wants to—that doesn’t amount to shirking a ‘journalistic responsibility.’ It’s just a bad decision.

If the Salient truly wanted to start dialogue about the issues that the Fulla ad jokingly but half-seriously alluded to, but feared that merely printing a longer, intelligent article
wouldn’t have garnered enough interest, a better strategy would have been to go ahead and print the ad along with an accompanying article. (And no, it's not their job, as some have asserted, to include a wider range of opinions just to avoid criticism--they're not claiming to be 'balanced.' One piece would have sufficed.) That way they would still have gotten a rise out of people, but readers would also have had serious points to respond to in beginning a discussion. It would have (1) hastened the dialogue-fostering process Travis wanted; (2) helped (perhaps) to nip the whole free speech/cultural offensiveness debate in the bud (and let’s be honest, that debate is tired unless you can get into cultural specifics, which we didn't really); and (3) demonstrated the publishers’ sincere desire to share and compare knowledge with readers, not just ruffle feathers with tasteless material.

The second half of the meeting had the Crimson on the defensive. Members of cultural student groups complained that the paper doesn’t cover enough of their events, and when it does, it sometimes/often covers them poorly. To the first complaint, the Crimson basically asked groups to meet them halfway, to be more proactive in alerting them to upcoming events. ‘We just don’t know about everything that’s going on,’ was the eyes-wide, palms-to-the-sky refrain, both a profession of innocence (it’s not like they’re actively ignoring the groups) and an admirably up-front admission of inadequacy (if the Crimson had a more diverse staff, it might be better connected to campus group happenings). Until it achieves more diversity, all the Crimson can do is try to improve personal ties with campus leaders and capitalize on online communications avenues to get up-to-the-minute information on events. And to show more support for student groups, maybe they should devote a page or a section to student org profiles and community updates. Even once a week would be nice. I think this could be done without, as some Crimson people worry, turning into mere ad space for groups.

The second complaint—biased or culturally insensitive coverage—is trickier. Even if the Crimson did manage to attract more diverse writers, would they assign the Black kids to cover Black stories in an attempt to minimize cultural misunderstanding and misrepresentation? That gets a little dicey. On the other hand, “having many people with different background experiences cover the same event,” as one junior quoted in today’s paper suggests, seems unrealistic—too much work for the writers, and still no guarantee that any of them will bring enough cultural understanding to avoid misrepresenting subjects and events.

But, of course, we can't hold the Crimson entirely responsible for problems of under- and misrepresentation broadly and deeply entrenched in mainstream media. There are no simple fixes. But that doesn't mean the situation's hopeless. Personally, I think that on a campus level at least, we should be encouraging the creation of more independent publications, not just better coverage by the giant one (although that also helps). Give people a chance to craft and control their own images for a change. So props to the Crimson kids who welcome alternative information sources* as an asset to campus dialogue.

*Even ones like 'Scene,' which I just flipped through. More on that later.


At 8:21 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I just wanted to say that I really enjoy reading your posts. You are clear and persuasive, and it seems like you approach issues from a place of interest rather than one of judgment. It probably doesn't hurt that I have a tendency to agree with you anyway, but I still think you do a great job:) Very impressive.


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