Public Editor: On COVID-19 coverage

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The onset of COVID-19 in March of last year has forced The Stanford Daily to significantly rethink its reporting practices. Facing difficult editorial decisions over anonymity, student safety, public health and more, each day the publication has to decide how to balance important and fair journalism with the safety of its community members. 

Of recent debate, however, has been whether the publication has taken on a role as an arbiter of the Campus Compact or as an arm of the University intended to flag, report and enforce COVID-19 safety protocols. One commenter, for example, suggested that The Daily has now become a mere mouthpiece to “the Police State formerly known as Stanford.” 

Two particular articles have raised alarm in recent weeks, both in their comment sections and on social media. The first, published on Jan. 24, reported on groups of non-masked, non-distanced students socializing on Wilbur Field. The second, published Feb. 3, was a deeper dive into a culture within the Graduate School of Business that led to penthouse parties in Los Angeles and non-distanced wine nights on campus. Both articles reported on groups of Stanford community members allegedly breaking the Campus Compact and, more critically, flouting county- and state-wide COVID-19 protocols — notably, at a time when deaths in California approached that of New York and ICU capacities neared their limit.

The main concerns from readers can be described in two distinct ways: First, that The Daily put students at risk of potentially overly harsh punishment when reporting on these parties. Second, that The Daily sensationalized on-campus gatherings, unfairly criticizing students in need of socialization among isolation. After all, why should this student organization have jurisdiction over the lives and actions of campus community members? In the case of the GSB article, why should The Daily get to impact the actions and choices made by those living hundreds of miles off campus? 

I am sympathetic to the fact that campus life is far from ideal at the moment. The University has made highly questionable decisions with regards to on-campus housing, dining, and socialization, and students — many of whom spend multiple days of isolation in a single dorm room — entirely deserve the opportunity for safe socialization. Similarly, the GSB students’ argument that much of their education revolves around networking is somewhat compelling. Losing the opportunity to meet other like-minded business professionals means their MBA education is, allegedly, severely stunted. Sounds fair enough, right?

I bring these arguments up because I do think there’s something important and nuanced to recognize in these situations: Our community members are tired. COVID-19 has drained college of the texture that makes it college, and adjusting to life within the bubble — while remaining safe and without much guidance from University officials — is not easy. Recognizing the emotional and physical difficulties of these times helps us understand just why students might seek out potentially risky socialization.

Yet, I firmly believe that The Daily was correct in its decision to publish these articles. The priority of The Daily is always that of serving its community, and the extension of that is preserving the safety of the students, faculty, staff and community members it reports on. Failing to cover these incidents could have done more harm to the safety of the campus community than reporting on it did. Here are some reasons why:

  1. It is in the University’s and, thus, the student’s best interest to know what campus life is really like. If the administration sees COVID-19 flare-ups as a result of prohibited partying, it informs the University about the safety and viability of its reopening plans.
  2. Service workers and students on campus — particularly those who are immunocompromised — do not deserve to be put at risk by the decisions of other students. Reporting on these events helps students decide if they want to return to campus later on or if they feel safe in certain parts of campus.
  3. Refusing to publish important community-based information like this would have amounted to an implicit endorsement of prohibited activities, like non-distanced partying.
  4. The Daily has an obligation to report any news that is in the public’s interest. Since risky parties directly affect the public on campus — and the public off-campus, who want a safe experience when they’re allowed to return — reporting on these incidents remains crucial.

Given these considerations, the news editors’ decision was the right one, even considering its potential implications for students mentioned in the articles. 

If we accept The Daily’s baseline decision to publish articles about these incidents, then we have to ask a new set of questions about sensationalism, protection of sources and responsibility — not solely whether The Daily or the Fountain Hopper should have stayed entirely mum.

On sensationalism: Balancing timely, urgent news against a tendency toward sensationalism is a difficult task, and has been arguably the largest editorial issue this publication has faced since the onset of the pandemic last year. The over 200 articles about COVID-19 published since then all face the same question: At what point does the tone of an article or headline become too fear-mongering or too click-baity?

In these particular articles, I was glad that the news editors and writers reported it as they would any other public safety/information-related article: Their headlines were straightforward and honest, and the article contents described an on-campus gathering while sourcing opinions from concerned students and residential staff. The point was to inform — and I firmly believe that the article served that purpose.

On source protection: Both articles published provided anonymity to their sources and included only photos in which individuals could not be readily identified. As noted in the articles, this was a conscious decision made because sources feared retaliation if they were identified as having tipped The Daily off to prohibited activity on campus. While source anonymity is a tricky and context-dependent subject, the news editors’ use of it in these situations makes complete sense. Moreover, its necessity speaks to a worrisome culture of backlash on campus: Multiple Daily tipsters requested anonymity due to a very real fear of retaliation from peers or ResEd. 

This brings me to my final point. The focus of community frustration should not fall solely on the fact that The Daily and other publications report on COVID-19 infractions, but rather on two things: first, the lack of contextualizing reporting to explain just why students might resort to unsafe gathering; second, and by extension, the University administration that has failed its students in multiple ways since the pandemic’s start.

As more students return to campus and the Campus Compact remains in place, The Daily might be obliged to publish more public information articles like the campus gatherings one. While those types of articles are informative, newsworthy and necessary in their own right, this reporting should not happen without properly situating such actions within the state of campus life overall. The Daily has to ask itself what purpose its reporting serves, and how it can advance productive and important discussions about COVID safety on campus. 

To that end, this publication has a responsibility to investigate issues underlying these gatherings, asking why and how these events happen in the first place. Past Daily coverage has examined unclear COVID-19 protocols and resources, on concerns raised by residential staffers, on shaky reopening plans that flout county restrictions, on athlete programming that prioritizes their campus return over non-athlete students. When reporting on campus gatherings, beyond highlighting simple student irresponsibility, The Daily should take these systemic factors into account and look more critically what has stymied the efforts of residential staffers to create a meaningful, safe campus space. And, it should go even further in analyzing how student recklessness affects service workers and other staffers, how campus police do or do not enforce social distancing and more — all topics that are related and correlated to community life that implicitly enables gatherings. 

But these are all topics that also involve University decision making around creating a viable and vibrant campus community. The source of these COVID infraction articles can, in part, be traced back to a University more invested in policing than proactively creating a campus community centered on safe socialization. Because University decisions are inextricable from student life and, thus, Daily reporting, both this publication and its readership needs to critically examine just how policies from above affect the actions of students on the ground. In this way, The Stanford Daily and the Stanford community can better work in tandem to interrogate and inform the University’s decisions.  

Contact Elizabeth Lindqwister at liz ‘at’ stanforddaily.com.

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Elizabeth Lindqwister is a senior from Peoria, Illinois, majoring in history. She is the Vol. 259 Public Editor, having previously served as the Vol. 257 Executive Editor and Vice President. Find her at CoHo or liz 'at' stanforddaily.com.