I never intended to actually write for The Daily; frankly, I never intended to get involved with this paper at all. Coming into Stanford, I was initially drawn to its wide range of academic journals and bloggy lifestyle magazines — all of which I then forgot to apply to, swept up as I was in the magnificent tragicomedy that is freshman fall (see: MATH 51, all-campuses, Wilbur Dining).
So I ended up joining The Daily anyway, as a copy editor. Though I rarely even read the paper, it did hold for me an undeniable appeal as the only campus publication dedicated to the news — reporting life as it happens, without focal constraint or editorial interference.
It doesn’t matter if you think The Daily is actually good at that or not. It has its flaws, and there are ways to improve. But I’ve grown to appreciate it as an institution, one supported by and indebted to a centuries-long legacy of print journalism.
Institutions have gotten a bad rap lately. From the government to the church to the media — especially the media — our confidence in authority is at an all-time low, no matter where we sit ideologically. According to some, in a fascinating and terrifying development, we have apparently stopped believing in truth itself.
So let me explain why I’m still a believer.
I really do think that institutions still matter, especially in journalism. It’s undeniable that media institutions have undergone massive failures in responsibility — but so have their readers and viewers. Trust is a two-way street, and the burden on publications to produce accurate and relevant content is matched by the burden on audiences to critically evaluate that content and hold those institutions accountable to it. This implicit contract has fallen apart on both sides, for too many reasons — financial, cultural, technological — to possibly enumerate in one column.
But the way to fix it is not to shred it (or overturn it, or disrupt it, or whatever it is we’re doing now). That contract exists between teachers and students, scientists and the public, any two people communicating, and it’s underpinned by the inevitability that one day, no matter how “post-truth” we purport to be, we’ll have to contend with facts. You can’t disrupt reality.
The framework to repair this contract already exists. It’s based on principles already present in the fabric of every newsroom — that of The Daily included — and, I believe, more in traditional papers than in anywhere else.
These are principles like accountability: There’s something about the finality of printing a paper that makes you think twice about what you’ve written. Even as journalism moves online, where errors can be fixed in seconds, most traditional news institutions make an effort to publish formal corrections and post publicly available codes of ethics. Most new-media sites don’t.
These are principles like specificity: More than ever now, it’s crucial to be explicit rather than implicit — to reconsider our assumptions about what people know or think, to restate what we ourselves know and to persuade rather than exclude.
These are principles like engagement: The best way to report content that is real and necessary to a community is to go into that community and talk to, not at, its members — something not quite accomplished by aggregators and commentary sites. Effective engagement depends fundamentally on diversity of background, experience and thought in a paper’s staff and leadership, and there’s much to be done in that respect at The Daily. Nevertheless, almost every editor here has at some point been a reporter, exposed to communities and viewpoints across campus, and that kind of staff-wide cultural impact can’t be underestimated.
And these are the reasons why, at the end of the day, I so often find myself back at The Daily. It’s an imperfect paper, one run by college students juggling other priorities with production nights, one that has a lot of room to grow, but it’s a reflection in miniature of practices in journalism at large. It’s an institution at a time when we don’t trust them, and it’s a flawed institution at a time when we need them to be better, but I believe, now more than ever, that it’s something we can’t ignore. I’m glad I didn’t.
Stephanie Chen is the current managing copy editor. She’s a junior from Cupertino and, like all the rest of you, is majoring in computer science. Contact Stephanie at stephchen ‘at’ stanford.edu.
This piece is part of the Vol. 250 Editorial Board’s “Why The Daily matters” series. Read the rest of the editorials here.