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Did The Daily do wrong by Yusi Zhao?

A little over a week ago, the Stanford community learned a name and a story. This name and story made the 2019 college admissions scandal more intimate than ever before. Through the reporting of the Los Angeles Times, we learned the name of Yusi Zhao, the expelled student whose family paid US$6.5 million to secure her spot at Stanford through a scheme run by consultant William Rick Singer. Through an article by the New York Times, we learned of Zhao’s internet presence. The Stanford Daily soon followed suit with a news story that also reported Yusi’s name and connection to the scandal. The Daily’s coverage, however, gave us a deeper glimpse into Yusi’s backstory, including her wealthy family’s past encounters with law enforcement, her academic interest in East Asia and a tragicomic vlogging history.

Having painted such a detailed portrait of Yusi and her family, The Daily has been both criticized and praised for its coverage of her expulsion.

Those praising the coverage are presumably impressed by The Daily’s rigorous contextualization of the story. Critics, however, argue that The Daily went too far and delved into the details beyond those necessary to tell a coherent story about her expulsion. They were presumably discomfited by the contextualization of the story, which described the Zhao family’s history of criminal entanglements, from a corruption case that saw a Chinese government official executed to the Panama Papers.

So which side of the debate has more merit? Was The Daily doing robust investigative journalism or pandering to morbid curiosity? Is Yusi just a public figure at the center of a crime or is she a former Stanford student, an acquaintance or more to many people that still go to school here?

To me, The Daily’s reportage went a little too far, overlooking certain ethical standards. Yet it did so in a way that is not immediately clear, or jarringly malicious, because The Daily’s reporting conformed to the ethically-dubious precedent set by national newspapers reporting on high-profile participants in Operation Varsity Blues.

To make the case for an ethical violation in this case, we can turn to three notable ethics guidelines from the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ):

1.     Recognize that legal access to information differs from an ethical justification to publish or broadcast.

2.   Avoid pandering to lurid curiosity, even if others do.

3.   Balance the public’s need for information against potential harm or discomfort. Pursuit of the news is not a license for arrogance or undue intrusiveness.

The first guideline undermines the view that all aspects of Yusi’s family background, in virtue of being publicly available, are ripe for recapitulation in our reportage of the scandal. A more demanding standard than legality ought to shape how we present things to the public. Broadly, this standard encourages incisive curation of the most salient details of a news story.

Not all details in The Daily’s reporting on the Zhao family were particularly salient and arguably “pandered to lurid curiosity” in a manner the second SPJ guideline urges against. For instance, delving into the family’s involvement in a gory corruption scandal, wherein a Chinese government official was executed, felt superfluous — although it made for fascinating reading. Unfortunately, good news reportage is not always fascinating. In fact, ‘fascinating’ but tangential details are often precisely what veers reportage into tabloid territory, especially at the university level. Given that The Daily is a newspaper that primarily serves the university that Yusi was expelled from, there arises a special need for care when The Daily, in particular, tells the story of her expulsion. The Daily is not quite in the same boat as mainstream or more-removed publications are in when they dish out intimate details of a former student’s personal history.

In particular, there are unique and greater avenues for “potential harm or discomfort” whenever a university newspaper reports on a former student, precisely because this means subjects of a university paper’s reportage are intimately known to, or are, its readers. Probing too deeply into these subjects-readers’ lives, therefore, can mean unduly discomfiting both the subject and those close to her: people at Stanford still know Yusi — they were her friends, acquaintances and classmates — even if she no longer goes here. These people were disturbed by aspects of The Daily’s reportage — something the Facebook comments on The Daily’s first article about Yusi Zhao and conversations I’ve had attest to. These can be taken as ex post markers that The Daily may have been too callous in telling her story, given its audience.

In Yusi’s case, The Daily also overlooked the third SPJ guidelines and treated “pursuit of news as license for… undue intrusiveness.” The publication wrongly catered to lurid curiosity about the criminality and privilege that shrouds the college admissions scandal. That said, I do not believe The Daily acted with “arrogance” in its overly-detailed storytelling. In part, this is because I know many of the humble, talented staffers that wrote this story, and cannot condemn them as malicious or guilty of a disregard for fellow people. They also evinced a sincere intent to balance the narrative, for instance, by explicating Yusi’s academic passions and extracurricular commitments at Stanford, rendering her more than an entitled rich girl– which is something that cannot be said for several mainstream media outlets.

With this in mind, I reckon The Daily’s editorial decision to go into certain lurid details was a result of cues from said mainstream publications. In emulating what they perceived to be the rigor of professional publications covering the college admissions scandal, The Daily ended up emulating the tabloid-nature of many mainstream outlets when reporting on Operation Varsity Blues as well, which veered the publication towards sensationalism.

To discern this lax adherence to relevance, consider how The New York Times went so far as to share an image of Yusi’s house in Beijing.  The image focuses on the Zhao family’s driveway filled with luxury cars, which reinforces a narrative wherein the Zhaos are rich Asians that think themselves above the law — a narrative reporters might not be incorrect about conjecturing. But perpetuating such conjectures in their writing, even underhandedly, is both beyond the scope of a reporter’s job — to report facts — and is vaguely sensationalist.

Similarly, national publications’ obsession with a video where Yusi ironically declares that she got into Stanford through “hard work” also speaks to how the college admissions scandal has awakened sensationalist-impulses within mainstream media, inclining them to promote retributive-humor towards the families involved in the scandal. Such reportage began with Olivia Jade, perhaps due to her celebrity background, and extended on to Sherry Guo and finally Yusi Zhao — a trifecta of spoilt teenage girls that warrant humiliation because they or their families broke the law? This leaves a bad taste in my mouth, but is a matter for another time.

In closing, The Daily’s coverage of Yusi Zhao could have been better. The publication wavered both from a universal standard of journalistic ethics and the admittedly more abstract ethical expectations of a university newspaper. I hypothesize that, when doing so, The Daily bought into sensationalist tendencies of the larger media culture around the scandal, and the news team working on the story should have known better. The Daily’s fallibility in this regard evinces that reporters are just people — they’re students learning and can get swept up in the tide of juicy information. But next time, The Daily should remember that Yusi is a person, too.

Contact Megha Parwani at mparwani ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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