It is one of the first tasks a journalist learns on the job, a routine aspect of reporting: Asking for comment from the people or organizations who are mentioned prominently in an article, especially those cast in a harsh light.
For student journalists at Harvard, that practice has been met with a backlash.
The Harvard Crimson, a 146-year-old daily student newspaper at the Ivy League university, published an article on Sept. 13 detailing a campus rally protesting United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the federal agency that has stepped up deportation raids under the Trump administration.
With the headline “Harvard Affiliates Rally for Abolish ICE Movement,” the article drew the ire of campus activists because of a sentence stating that the reporters had contacted the agency for comment: “ICE did not immediately respond to a request for comment Thursday night.”
Act on a Dream, the campus group that had organized the rally covered in the article, started an online petition demanding that The Crimson vow to never contact ICE again and to apologize for the “harm it has inflicted.”
“We are extremely disappointed in the cultural insensitivity displayed by The Crimson’s policy to reach out to ICE, a government agency with a long history of surveilling and retaliating against those who speak out against them,” the petition read.
It continued: “In this political climate, a request for comment is virtually the same as tipping them off, regardless of how they are contacted.”
More than 650 people have signed the petition. It has the backing of several campus organizations that represent Latin American students, as well as the Harvard College Democrats.
The Crimson’s critics said the newspaper had compromised the safety of undocumented immigrants on the Harvard campus, including students. In August, a Palestinian Harvard student traveling from Lebanon was denied entry to the United States by an immigration official. After an outcry, the student was allowed to enter the country.
The Crimson has stood by its reporting. In a note to readers on Monday, the paper’s president, Kristine E. Guillaume, and its managing editor, Angela N. Fu, wrote that “every party named in a story has a right to comment or contest criticism leveled against them.”
The letter went on to cite the Student Press Law Center and the Society of Professional Journalists, both of which approve of the practice. It also noted that The Crimson did not contact the agency until the rally had concluded.
“A world where news outlets categorically refuse to contact certain kinds of sources — a world where news outlets let third-party groups dictate the terms of their coverage — is a less informed, less accurate, and ultimately less democratic world,” the note said.
Ms. Guillaume declined to comment further when contacted for this article.
A leader of the Harvard College Democrats said the group disagreed with The Crimson’s stance and sided with Act on a Dream.
“It’s very much in line with our values,” Isabel Giovannetti, the Harvard College Democrats vice president, said of the anti-ICE activists’ point of view. “It lines up with our commitment to protecting these movements, making sure people’s voices can be heard, that intimidation from ICE doesn’t prevent these students from exercising their right to mobilize and organize.”
Margo Schlanger, a law professor at the University of Michigan who specializes in civil rights and prison reform, said while she understood the protesters’ concerns, the paper had not done anything unethical. “They’re trying to make ICE a pariah agency,” she said of the Harvard activists.
Ms. Schlanger added that it was “not responsible journalism not to call the agency to ask them to respond to things.”