If All Politics is Local, What About Reporting?

The Stanford icon: Hoover Tower (Image source: LA Times).
I’ve been blogging for Fiat since last summer, including a brief stint as an “overseas” columnist (now the “Washington” columnist). Given that, I feel as though I’ve earned the chance to write a self-indulgent column about what it’s like to write about a community in which you live and, in particular, what it’s like to write about Stanford.

As a blogger, I write most often about Stanford. Sure, I’ve done pieces with a bit more of a national topic, or done opinion pieces that are not necessarily tied to Stanford, but by and large, I return to writing about the operation of the school, by both its professional (the administration) and student (ASSU) government. Why is that? The first, and most obvious reason, is that it’s where I have the most added value. I have a lot of opinions about national and international politics. However, so do a lot of other people, many of whom are smarter, better informed, and better known than I am. Stanford politics, on the other hand, is an area where the competition is not so fierce and I might actually have something to say that hasn’t been said. The fact that someone in the community might read what I’ve written and feel as though they’ve learned something is really what drives me to keep writing.

However, writing as a member of a small community about the community is its own challenge, especially when that place is Stanford. What do I mean by that?

The first thing about writing about Stanford is that I personally know many of the people about whom I’m writing. As I say, reporting at Stanford is often just a conglomeration of conflicts of interest. You can try to reveal most of your ties, but does the fact that you took IHUM with the subject’s roommate qualify? What if the subject was in your IHUM? What if your subject was your IHUM’s IHUM kid? But knowing people is only the tip of the iceberg. When you’re reporting on Stanford personalities, it doesn’t matter if you know them now: the fact that you might meet them in the future also weighs on you.

After all, why are we at Stanford? We’re here to take classes with great professors and take advantage of Stanford’s resources, of course, but the real reason that we choose Stanford over less elite schools is our peers. We chose Stanford largely because we want to meet and become friends with many of the leaders of tomorrow (as corny as that sounds). So, if you want to leverage your connections later, what’s the point in publishing an article that’s critical of someone else? Will the immediate gains of publishing the article really outweigh the possible later costs?

That’s really the question that student reporters grapple with every day and probably it’s one of the reasons why there’s relatively little in the way of hard-hitting journalism at Stanford (along with the fact that there probably aren’t all that many scandals to uncover in the first place – although Stanford never ceases to surprise me). It also makes those investigative pieces that might ruffle feathers seem a little braver.

My policy on publishing some of my more investigative pieces is to temper my language. It’s not worth it to swing for the fences – not least because it usually means overreaching. Instead, it’s better to present the truth, as I see it, and to assume the best of each person. Is it likely that someone who refuses to respond to requests for contact might not have a good response to an article? Perhaps. But in the absence of evidence confirming that, it’s safest just to leave it as what it is: a failure to make contact. People may not take an immediate liking to you for asking questions, but they generally respect you for it, if you keep it fair. In essence it’s an adaptation of what your mother taught you: tell the truth, but do it in the way that you’d want others to tell it about you. Have I made a few people upset with my writings? Yes, no doubt. But have I made fewer people upset than I otherwise might have? I hope that answer is yes as well. And for the people I have offended: I am sorry. Please give me a job some day?

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