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Surveying the Tufts Daily Scene

Opinion | April 27, 2018

Note: The author submitted the following piece to Daily staff members on April 23, addressing an April 17 Daily column titled “Is This Thing On?: Surveying the rap scene.” As an assistant editor under the Daily arts section, the author was one of many on the Daily “masthead” responsible for the editorial process: proofreading, fact-checking and ensuring a high journalistic standard before content was published. The author was also a member of the Daily’s Intentionality and Inclusivity Committee, a committee of Daily staff, including managing board members, and non-staff dedicated to toward making Daily coverage more sensitive toward pertinent issues such as, but not limited to, race, nationality, gender, sex, sexual orientation and class through planning educational events and creating critical resources.

The author, who has since left his responsibilities as an assistant arts editor, hoped that his critique would be published in the Daily to its entirety, leaving the author’s experiences fully intact. Daily managing board decided that the piece could be published only if the author omitted descriptions of his interactions with fellow staff members. The author hopes that the publication of this piece in its entirety can lead to more fruitful discussion of how those involved with student-run publications can hold themselves and each other accountable for the work they do, beyond a name on the page. The author acknowledges that his piece lacks an in-depth critical discussion of the column’s anti-Black rhetoric, but encourages others to read the original column, and seek out other critical resources. The author also acknowledges that the student who originally posted their criticism of the column in the Class of 2020 Facebook page identifies as Black.

 

Last week, we published a column titled, “Is This Thing On?: Surveying the rap scene.” The column demeaned black individuals by portraying harmful stereotypes of black hip-hop artists. After a student posted their criticism of the piece on the Tufts Class of 2020 Facebook page, sparking a long comment thread filled with many strong student opinions, Daily managing board issued a statement and took down the column from our online platform.

An archived version of our original column still exists online; it can and should be read and analyzed by readers at their own pace. But I won’t dissect that column in this piece. Instead, I will unpack the statement released by managing board following the column’s publication, then describe my own experiences as a first-year member of the Daily’s Intentionality and Inclusivity Committee and assistant editor on the very section under which this column was published.

I hope that my one limited perspective might push critical discussions of the Daily’s position as a predominantly white organization with a history of misrepresenting and harming Tufts community members. I also want to recognize the efforts by students to provide fair, important coverage that does real work in making this school a better place. But last week’s column and the following response made it alarmingly clear to me that all of us in the Daily need to seriously reconsider what we really do. Addressing our column, managing board’s statement read:

“The column, whether intentionally or not by the author, echoes historically racist tropes used to portray black people in its discussion of rap music.”

This self-critique is disappointingly un-critical. Harmful representations in journalism don’t just “echo[]” tropes rooted “historically.” The word “echo” muddles the reality that writing, editing and publishing are in fact quite active processes. Columns like “Surveying the rap scene” are not passive vessels for historically rooted racism; rather, they create racism in our present, perpetrating it against students on this very campus. The statement continued to further demonstrate our failure as a publication to point blame at ourselves:

“We are working on revising our columnist policy, which currently gives broad leeway to columnists and only allows edits for grammar and fact-checking, to ensure that similar incidents do not happen again.”

By bringing attention to “our columnist policy, which currently gives broad leeway to columnists,” our managing board’s statement is dishonest. An article will go through several steps before publishing: it will go through a section editor (like me), a section executive, a copy editor and member of managing board. At least four people will read the article before publication. It only takes one person reading a piece to stop it from publication, or at least reach out to its author. In this case, we failed at every step.

It was not our columnist policy that published the article; nor was it the work of just one columnist. We, students working for the Daily, published it. On the Daily, we all hold responsibility for an article, whether our name is on it or not. Ending with an apology by our columnist, the statement continues to demonstrate our reluctance to accept fault. Our columnist writes:

“I should have acted and written differently, and I’m extremely sorry to everyone who was offended by my writing.”

In this case, whether intentional or not, the author’s syntax and use of passive voice construction add insult to the injury. Language is not a trivial matter; as writers, language is our job. In this passage, our columnist extends their apologies to those “offended by [their] writing,” rather than to those we ourselves harmed. While “harm” is real, “offense” is a subjective metric left to the whim of the “offended.” By using the word “offended,” our columnist separates their actions from their action’s effects. Our columnist continues:

“I want to thank you for all of your criticism and honest opinions. It has offered me a chance to reflect and reconsider how I can better communicate going forward.”

Offering the solution of “better communicat[ion]” erases the anti-black sentiment at this article’s root. Making this a matter of “communication” implies lack of intention on our columnist’s part. But addressing intention has no place in an apology: no matter how one packs it, conveying lack of intention only ever serves to lift the burden of fault from those responsible for harm. Elaborating on our intentions misses the point: no improvement in communication skills will change the fact that an anti-black column filled a page in our campus’ only daily newspaper.

At the root of our column, this “incident,” as managing board’s statement puts it, is anti-blackness. At the Daily, we are not only complicit in it — we perpetrate it. We are responsible for the culture that allowed the column’s publication, but even more so, we are responsible for the culture that created it. As an assistant editor on the Daily myself, I’ve become increasingly aware of my own inability to faithfully uphold the values a news publication should strive toward.

I joined the Daily last fall as a first-year with no experience in journalism, writing for the arts section and working with the Daily’s Intentionality and Inclusivity Committee (I&I). Spurred by my experiences in I&I, I wrote an article last fall for the arts section, published Nov. 3, titled, “Student performers of color share their hopes, concerns for a cappella at Tufts.” The longform investigative piece highlighted some of the issues faced by students of color in Tufts acapella groups; it was a hefty task for a first-year with no prior journalism experience.

Through a miscommunication of my own fault, the article failed to include perspectives from Essence, Tufts’ only all-female a cappella group specializing in music of the African diaspora. For an article about representation in a cappella groups, failing to consult and include the insights from a group that predominantly showcases the talents of women of color was a critical mistake. Nevertheless, we published the article.

My superiors on the Daily staff shielded me from the rightful criticism of Essence members. My senior section members told me not to worry and that what was important was that we covered something important. I appreciated their consolation; nevertheless, my poor journalism has weighed heavily on me for long after. I have been more hesitant to cover stories since then.

My experience writing that article is not unique. At the Daily, I have seen coverage by student-journalists ill-equipped to cover stories with sensitivity to the lives of those we hope to represent. Too often we send, like in my case, inexperienced, unknowledgeable first-years to cover stories where knowledge matters most. Writing for another campus publication, I have even been told by a student directly that they would not have been accepted my interview request had I been writing for the Daily. Many students at this school don’t trust this publication to do its job.

This isn’t breaking news. Some might say that our current structure as a daily publication, with an article turnover rate that borders on inhumane for those most closely involved with the Daily’s operations, necessitates that we sometimes send ill-equipped journalists into stories they have little expertise in covering. Some might say that under our current structure as a daily publication, we will inevitably publish some unthoughtful journalism. If these are the prices we must pay to publish a paper every day, perhaps we should reconsider the value in keeping the “Daily” in “Tufts Daily.” But to blame all of our failures on our organization’s structure erases our responsibility as journalists, especially when entities in the Daily’s structure exist to address such issues.

For example, in I&I last fall, we not only discussed and shared critical resources on intentional and inclusive journalism, but also wrote a style guide addressing journalistic framing and terminology when covering stories about sensitive issues such as — but not limited to — race, nationality, gender, sex and class. Each semester, I&I even creates a kind of “journalistic sensitivity” curriculum for our Daily-wide writer’s training, DailyCon. But in my experience writing and editing for the arts section, I have seen these efforts go largely unimplemented. For my peers on Daily staff and I&I past and present, who have been having these conversations long before I joined, this is frustrating. But I have seen these failures on my colleagues parts as much as I have seen them on my own.

During arts section meetings, I have seen many of my fellow section editors joke about I&I as the “PC police,” writing off I&I’s work toward making the Daily a more thoughtful publication a nuisance. My peers’ comments made me uncomfortable — did they not understand that these issues mattered to me, as an I&I member, a writer and a person of color?

I have found answers to this question in part through my political identity. As an Asian-American of Japanese descent, I have seemingly gone unnoticed as a person of color in this space. I can blend in; I can even benefit from my proximity to whiteness while others can not. Confronted by comments that demonstrate a lack of interest in the most important issues in journalism, I have said little to nothing. My own discomfort to voice my concern in this space is a poor excuse. Like my peers, I am not only complicit in harm perpetrated at the Daily — I do the work to uphold and enact it.

For those still skeptical of anti-blackness on this campus, despite the testimony of countless black Tufts students past and present, despite last week’s Daily coverage, I hope that you may find the time to reconsider your hesitation to take your peers’ lived experiences seriously. For these skeptics, I hope that my experiences as a person of color who is not only complicit in, but participates in the harm the Daily perpetrates against this community, can push you to consider your own political personhood, whether you write for a publication or not.

To my fellow Daily staff, I ask: how many more “incidents” will it take for us to realize that we have a problem? Why are we hesitant to publish this piece, when we published my a cappella piece back in November without first questioning its potential to harm this community?

Should this piece not make it into Wednesday’s paper, I think my superiors on the Daily will prove my point: we are failing to confront the ramifications of our role as a daily publication. But should they publish it, I hope that this piece may push members of this community to continue, or more often, start the work to confront our power, privileges and responsibilities as journalists and university students.