Daily wins Polk Award, first for an independent, student-run newspaper

Feb. 20, 2023, 11:51 p.m.

The Stanford Daily has won a 2022 George Polk Award in Journalism, marking the first time in history that an independent, student-run newspaper has won the prestigious award. Theo Baker ’26, Investigations Editor at The Daily, will be honored with a “Special Award” for his investigation into allegations that research co-authored by University President Marc Tessier-Lavigne contained manipulated images.

According to the website of Long Island University, the home of the Polk Awards, George Polk judges award “intrepid, bold, and influential work of the reporters themselves, placing a premium on investigative work that is original, resourceful, and thought-provoking.” A panel of 12 judges, primarily working or former journalists, convened in January to comb through 515 submissions for the awards.

Baker is the recipient of a “Special Award,” which, according to awards curator John Darnton, is “given in an unusual situation in which we want to honor a reporter who exhibits steadfastness and bravery and whose work does not fall into a typical category.” Past recipients of Special Awards include Nikole Hannah-Jones of The New York Times and contributors for the 1619 Project, as well as columnist David Ignatius and editor Karen Attiah of The Washington Post for an opinion piece which demanded accountability after the murder of Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi.

Past Polk laureates include Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, Walter Cronkite, James Baldwin and more. At 18 years old, Baker is the youngest recipient of a Polk Award in history.

In late November, Baker’s coverage for The Daily broke the news that several papers co-authored by Tessier-Lavigne allegedly contain image manipulation. The Stanford Board of Trustees opened an investigation the next day, eventually bringing a former deputy attorney general, a Nobel Laureate, a former Princeton president and a former Harvard provost on board to review Tessier-Lavigne’s research.

“I hope that our reporting has shown the amount of thoroughness and dedication, both to accuracy and to fairness, that has gone on behind the scenes,” said Baker.

“Mr. Baker’s reporting was thorough and fearless — undertaken in circumstances in which he had much to lose — and the Stanford Daily and its editor, Sam Catania, are also to be commended for publishing it,” Darnton wrote in an email to The Daily. “With young people like this the future of journalism looks bright.”

Baker expressed his gratitude for the award, noting that he was “extraordinarily overwhelmed” by the support he had received from the team of advisors, editors and friends that helped him as he worked on the investigation. He cited his grandfather, who shared stories with Baker about his time as a student journalist in college and passed away just weeks before Baker began his role at The Daily, as an inspiration.

“My highest commitment is to the truth,” Baker said. “I think all of us ought to push for transparency in the places that we love, and Stanford is a place that I love.”

Over the course of nearly a dozen articles published in The Daily, Baker broke the allegations that multiple papers co-authored by Tessier-Lavigne contain altered images. Tessier-Lavigne maintained that the alleged image manipulations “had no bearing on the findings or conclusions” of his papers.

Daily Editor in Chief Sam Catania ’24 commended Baker’s “in-depth, fair and fact-checked” reporting throughout the investigation.

“It’s a sensitive topic that you have to tread carefully on,” said Tracy Jan ’98 M.A. ’99, the Journalism Director on The Daily’s Board of Directors and a deputy health and science editor at The Washington Post. “And he did, and he succeeded, as this award shows.”

“The time and dedication [Baker] puts toward sourcing — talking to as many people as possible so that he can understand a story inside and out — is admirable,” said Catania. “It is an immense honor for The Stanford Daily that the George Polk Awards Committee chose to highlight his work. We look forward to continuing our paper’s focus on investigative coverage because independent student journalism matters.”

Baker’s receiving the Polk Award coincides with The Daily’s 50th year of independence from the University and marks the first time that an independent, student-run newspaper has received the prestigious award.

According to Andrew Bridges ’76, the Legal Director and Board Chair of The Daily’s Board of Directors, The Daily’s status as an “exceptional student organization that is also an independent California public benefit corporation” was cemented by contract 50 years ago after years of disagreements with the administration over The Daily’s coverage of anti-Vietnam War protests.

“The relationship has not always been easy: some faculty and administrators fail to understand or respect the Daily’s independent legal status. But the Board stands ready to step in whenever The Daily faces improper threats,” Bridges wrote. “The Daily’s recent reporting could have been stifled without the University contract and a strong corporate Board.”

Jan praised that Baker’s work was “supported by the crew that’s there, [and] that people did not back down from this difficult work.” She added that his investigation took “a lot of journalistic courage.”

“Student journalists are journalists,” said Baker. “The work that is done by so many thousands of people around the country to push for transparency, to call for a greater understanding of the things happening behind the scenes at the places that they care about — it’s just such an important mission.”

“When you’re a student journalist, you live next to the people you write about. You work with them. All of this is obviously complicated by [that fact], but it makes it all the more important,” said Baker. “There is no higher commitment one can have than to establish transparency within their community.”

Other awardees this year included The New York Times for its coverage of the war in Ukraine and Politico for its revealing of Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito’s draft opinion overturning Roe v. Wade.

Cassidy Dalva '25 is a News Managing Editor at The Stanford Daily. A prospective economics major from Los Angeles, California, Cassidy enjoys baking, playing pickleball, and spending time outdoors in her free time. Contact her at [email protected].

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