How journalism at our University paper failed to treat a vulnerable community fairly

My experience with the Minnesota Daily after writing about public housing in Minneapolis.

Letter to the Editor

In April, I wrote an opinion column for the Minnesota Daily about Elliot Twins Public Housing buildings near downtown, just minutes from campus. I believed that writing a column about local public housing would be a way to raise awareness about issues that many students do not know about.

I began the process of writing the column by reaching out to local community organizer Ladan Yusuf, who is a member of a group called the Defend Glendale & Public Housing Coalition. Yusuf allowed me to observe a meeting at Elliot Twins on April 5, which was meant to be a space where four local politicians came at the request of residents in the building. These politicians were Hennepin County District 4 Commissioner Angela Conley, Rep. Hodan Hassan, DFL – Minneapolis, Ward 6 City Council member Abdi Warsame and Rep. Mohamud Noor, DFL – Minneapolis. The activists were able to provide proof that they had scheduled the meeting time around the representatives’ schedules. I later asked my editor if I should consider reaching out to these politicians for comment, and she told me that I could if I wanted to, but I probably wouldn’t get a response in time.

I formed my opinion for the column based on the meeting I attended, from my research and from reading many articles from different viewpoints on the subject. I tried to address the countering views expressed by the Minneapolis Public Housing Authority (MPHA) by reading an article on its website. The meeting revolved around a draft of a relocation plan that would take place during the Rental Assistance Demonstration (RAD) renovations by the MPHA, which Yusuf dissected for the residents. While I could have been more forward by reaching out to the MPHA directly, I still believe that I wrote the column with an opinion that was supported by evidence.

My piece went through three editors before it was published. I submitted the column early and worked closely with the opinions editor to ensure that the article was properly cited.

On the evening of April 11, the day the piece came out, my editor contacted me and told me that the MPHA had requested that the article be taken down and corrections be made on it. She asked me questions about my sourcing, but I felt like we did not speak in enough detail.

Later that same night, my column had been completely edited based on the MPHA’s requests and the editors’ judgments, and a significant portion of the column had been removed as part of a correction. An editor’s note was added to the bottom; the note mischaracterized the piece by exaggerating the need for corrections and harmed my reputation as a columnist. When my sources, the public housing activists, saw the edited version of the column, they were justifiably furious. They asked to speak with the editors, but the editors refused to talk to them until the next day, despite working quickly to be accommodating of the MPHA the day before.

When a couple of the activists finally got on the phone with the editors and me, Kelly Busche, the editor-in-chief at the time, was dismissive of our concerns. She explained why the editors had taken out what they did, making their decisions based on what was verifiable at the time. The editors stated that they had to change the article based on what ‘couldn’t be corroborated’ after publication. But when the activists offered proof and verification for many of the statements that had been removed, such as the invitations that had been sent to the representatives, the editors claimed nothing could be changed because that was not standard practice for the paper. I was informed that the piece could not be taken down because of transparency, despite me feeling like it wasn’t my true work.

All mentions of the word “privatization” were removed from my original piece per the MPHA’s request. Although the term has remained heavily debated, I included it in my piece based on how it had sometimes been used in other articles on the subject. However, it seems the words of Jeff Horwich, the director of policy and external affairs from the MPHA, were considered to be more truthful than my researched opinion, because the editors listened to his wishes.

I later found several other sources that linked RAD to privatization. After the piece had been edited, I sat down with Horwich, and he explained, saying, “I think we can debate the meaning of that term [privatization]. In the end I would argue, what’s the goal? It’s preserving the housing … so you can debate the terminology around it … and we will, because we think privatization is kind of a trigger word.”

The words of an elderly resident named Adar Noor had also been removed. Noor had stated through a translator that she had tried to call Abdi Warsame’s office many times with concerns, and asked him to come to the meeting, but that did not happen. Later that month, Warsame held a resident meeting at Elliot Twins. The editors saw it fit to remove Noor’s voice because they believed that the information Noor provided wasn’t accurate. But, I had quoted her based on her statements to me during the meeting. The removal of the quote was entirely unjustified and the mistreatment of Noor and the other residents was the main reason I pushed to make the situation right.

The editors also removed all mention of the politicians who didn’t show up to the meeting, based on the MPHA’s claims that the politicians did not receive invitations to the meeting. The editor’s note made it sound like the information wasn’t corroborated after it had been published. Proof that the politicians were invited to the meeting was provided after the story had already been edited.

I took my concerns to the Minnesota Daily’s board of directors, and I was informed that I could write this piece. I aim for this situation to be one that leads to better journalism at the Daily. The Daily needs to improve its relationship with minority communities and it needs to do more to represent all students and people within the Twin Cities. My goal with this letter was not to expose the Minnesota Daily but to be heard and to elevate the voices of the residents from Elliot Twins. 

Aleezeh Hasan is a former columnist for the Minnesota Daily.

This letter to the editor has been lightly edited for style and clarity.