It’s hard being a student journalist at Princeton these days.
I started my tenure as Editor-in-Chief a year ago discussing the University’s massive communications efforts to craft an ever-positive image of itself. I wrote then about the University’s SPIN program (initials which officially don’t stand for anything, I was later told), that groups over 150 administrators to discuss communications strategies, and I stressed that the purpose of The Daily Princetonian was to deconstruct spin and to present the news without an agenda. At the beginning of my tenure I promised to take a more aggressive approach to our reporting and to stress daily the differences between the University’s propaganda machine and an independent news organization.
A year later, I have been surprised by the retaliation some of our writers have had to face not from angry administrators but from their peers, other students who did not appreciate stories that negatively portrayed certain aspects of student life on campus. While these consequences were mainly social -- being banned from an eating club or being asked to leave a small dorm party, for example -- others were serious yet highly improbable, such as threats of bodily harm or a conspiracy to plant drugs in the newsroom (I kid you not, I overheard the latter one day while walking to our newsroom at 48 University Place).
We didn’t take any of this personally or seriously, of course. We are well aware that our job descriptions require us to write and actively pursue unpopular stories that will bring to light questionable behavior or wrongdoing. However, I was taken aback that most of the pushback against the paper this year came from other students rather than from the administration. As student journalists we deal each day with living among the small community that makes up the Princeton student body while reporting on it at the same time. As a result, it is inevitable that student journalists and story subjects will cross paths among multiple spheres of life on campus. Professional journalists don’t face these encounters as often, nor do they have to reconcile their affiliations with their town, city or country with the work they do in the same way that we have to reconcile our affiliations with Princeton and the ‘Prince.’Yet, the ‘Prince’ has in the undergraduate student body its most contentious critics, the same broad group of people who make up our staff. A vocal minority of the student body has come to expect a paper that, if it does not properly advocate for the interest of the students, at least presents a semblance of solidarity with its peers. In short, that we play nice when we discuss one of our own. One particular comment on a recent arrest story was symptomatic of this thinking, a student wrote: “It's amazing to see student publications more concerned with disgracing their student body than actually publishing thought provoking news.”
Here at the ‘Prince,’ our reporters try to be journalists first, students second. Our stories are not attacks against our peers or attempts to disgrace them, but an attempt to provide prompt, relevant information to the University community even when the content of our stories may afflict some of our readers, such as those who are personally close to the story, those who feel we ought not to tarnish Princeton’s reputation or those who will not be portrayed in a positive light. In addition, we treat all of our sources like who they are: adults. We have no deference to our peers and we have no deference to administrators.
In fact, writing stories about the administration -- where the extra layers separating us from our Nassau Hall sources mean our relationships never have to transcend the professional -- can sometimes be easier because there is a clear distinction between our journalism and our personal lives. However, it’s not that we have shied away from negative stories about the administration, our coverage of the University’s mental health policies comes to mind, for example.
Just like we do not have an agenda with the administration, we do not have an agenda when we report on matters of student life. Nevertheless, having reached the end of my term, I want to remind you that before you take it out on a reporter for a story you have read, remember that the only person responsible for everything published in the ‘Prince’ this year was me.Marcelo Rochabrun, a history major from Lima, Peru, is the outgoing Editor-in-Chief of The Daily Princetonian. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.