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What Does The Tech Write about, And Why?

By Daniel C. Stevenson
Editor in Chief

Two recent incidents caused me to think hard about why The Tech prints what it does. The editor of the Washington University in St. Louis Student Life criticized me in a column for trying to get the scoop early on the story about Provost Mark S. Wrighton's appointment to be WashU's next chancellor. And earlier this week, I had to decide whether or not to run a story about a sensitive incident involving an MIT student.

So what does The Tech write about, and why? A recent examination of the front pages turns up the typical fare: the winner of the Big Screw, a re-engineering town meeting, and a successful Spring Weekend. We do our best to cover those kinds of news events, such as new housemasters, new Athena workstations, or new living groups.

But look behind and beyond: Controversy over the letters of a new fraternity chapter, a prefrosh "stolen" by a living group, and the future of the Lowell Institute School. These kinds of articles, the extra work, the look ahead, are what makes The Tech worth the paper it's printed on. We are not Woodward and Bernstein wannabes, we're just trying to answer the question, as one recent source suggested, "Whassup?".

The editor of the WashU paper criticized me for wanting to "scoop" the MIT News Office by getting a special edition of The Tech out about the Wrighton appointment. I was more interested, he charged, in making a name for The Tech and myself than observing protocol. The techniques I employed to confirm the news - "tricks of the trade," he called them - are not illegal, he observed, but deceiving.

To him I make no excuses for Tech reporters, myself included, being persistent or persuasive. I try to maintain my cool, and be tactful and polite at all times. But, this is journalism, or at least journalism MIT-style. People have information we feel the public has a need to know. There are many ways of obtaining information - a small pause, a side comment, or a random letter can have far larger repercussions than a big press conference or glitzy release. But an implicit confirmation or anonymous tip can also bring the news from the provost's office to page one.

Last year, we found out about a quasi-secret administration housing committee. A whole series of stories were written; some readers were bored, some didn't read the articles, but a few did. They spoke out at house meetings. They formed "action" groups. They asked tough questions of the administration, they demanded concessions, and for the time being, they have succeeded.

Does The Tech deserve credit for the continued undergraduate presence at Senior House or the surge in dormitory activism on the east side of campus? Certainly not - several hard working students are the real champions here - but a story or two in this paper helped get the ball rolling. And behind that was an attitude that, tactics aside, we wanted to get the information into a readable and usable form on the front page of the paper, for all to see and judge.

We didn't ask, going into those stories, "Is this something the administration doesn't want us to know?" or "Should we wait until they announce it formally?" or "Should we try to pressure people to talk?" Experience shows those techniques only result in spineless, and useless, news articles.

We didn't wait. We pushed ahead, we grabbed what we could, and we used those tricks of the trade with, I would argue, overwhelmingly positive results. We weren't out to dupe or hurt anybody, or to make a big name for our gonzo reporters. We wanted to get the information, get the scoop, and get it out to the people for which it mattered as soon as we could.

Are there ever legitimate reasons not to run a story? It's all very subjective and explosive, and often hard to decide. I never thought much about what we don't or won't write about until this past week: A student was involved in an incident with the police, there was an arrest. We had police and court records, and the usual official interviews. Everything was ripe for a first story to break on the front page: The student's name, the charges, the anonymous sources, even a photo if we wanted: the whole shebang.

But behind those dry facts lay a deeper story - a story that prompted me to decide that the incident did not bear news, at least for that issue, at that early a stage. Something The Tech didn't write about, something that was not news suited for this paper.

No story ran in that issue. Will we write about this situation someday? As we find out more, or circumstances change, we may well. And we'll continue to look for all those stories: the dean search shortlist, the next provost, the story behind re-engineering, and the student arrested for a crime.

That's what we write about. Useful, responsible reporting of the news is what we're striving for - a field for plain, honest work.

Daniel C. Stevenson, a sophomore majoring in physics, is Editor in Chief of The Tech.