It seemed everyone in the GW community had something to gripe about last week when The Washington Post devoted the cover story of its Sunday magazine to GW and its controversial president, Stephen Joel Trachtenberg. Considering the emotional topics the article touched on, the author, Chris Shea, should take criticism from all sides as a sign that he got it right.
It’s a story everyone on campus is at least aware of, if not fully versed on, after reading countless GW vs. Foggy Bottom headlines over the years. People quoted said pretty much the same thing they’ve always been saying – neighbors upset to see their neighborhood taken over by college students, the University saying growth is a positive thing and students hoping for fewer students and fees (full disclosure: I was one of them). The picture of Trachtenberg standing proudly in front of the most obscure object on campus, the tempietto, was even nearly identical to the one The Post set up in its last GW story. So the only real change in coverage was the writing style and emphasis on particular details that Shea brought.
The live online chat that took place the following day brought out differing reactions to the article. Many readers thought the article brought out only the worst Trachtenberg has to offer. They said it supported their suspicions that he cares more about his legacy than education. Shea commented that he did not intend to put Trachtenberg in a purely negative light. Another reader pointed out that Foggy Bottom residents are not as cranky as they seem in the article. Others said the negative impact of students in the neighborhood were de-emphasized.
Other readers, mostly GW students, tore into Shea for failing to emphasize how great it is to be a GW student. You can’t blame them for wanting more publicity of our impressive student body and opportunities. And a few others pointed out factual errors in the article, including calling it the Elliott School of International Relations.
The different reactions to the story are common to ones we get weekly at The Hatchet. Sometimes the criticism is well-deserved (nobody is perfect, and certainly not student journalists), other times it is unfair. But most of the time criticism falls in the gray area, in which a reader’s personal perspective on a subject come in conflict with the writer or editor’s. So you get a situation in which Shea thinks he could have done a better job portraying student life, as he said in the chat, even though the story was clearly one about a hotly contested zoning battle. Although student feedback may not change the way future stories about GW are written in the Post, it will weigh on reporters’ minds the next time they come to campus.
While The Hatchet does not currently host online chats about stories that appear in our paper, I would like to remind readers that those conversations still take place in form of your letters to the editor. We will not always find a way to resolve your complaints, but we are always willing to try.
-The writer, a senior majoring in
journalism, is Hatchet editor in chief.
This article appeared in the April 15, 2002 issue of the Hatchet.