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My W&L: Athena Cao ’16

“In those newsrooms surrounded by professional journalists, I still emailed my professors when I needed honest advice.”

Why is compassion a virtue, if it is? What exactly is the difference between privilege and entitlement, if there is any? Where is the line between seeking the truth and invading others’ privacy, if there is one? Those are just a few questions I never pondered before reporting.

Lexington, with about 7,000 residents, sounds just like “that town where nothing ever happened” in an Adele song. But it’s right here where I learned to cover news. I am fortunate to have professors who not only taught me what journalists do, but also hammered home what ethical journalists don’t do.

At W&L, every journalism student knows misspelling a name means an F grade for the assignment, and many of us learned that the hard way. But other skills aren’t as easy to learn in class, so Rockbridge Report was born. Journalism majors are required to take a one-term reporting course and an editing or producing course working on the weekly news website and TV broadcast, which covers Lexington, Buena Vista and Rockbridge County.

I had my fears as I started reporting, especially with English as a second language. But my professors didn’t doubt me or lower the standards, even on pronunciation. For one broadcast story, I had to tape myself on Main Street telling a narrative that included the name “Meriwether Lewis.” On my first try, I stressed on the second syllable of Lewis. Back in Reid Hall, Professor Finch corrected me and sent me back out with the video camera and tripod. Four more trips later — each time I managed to come up with a different wrong pronunciation — I got it.

I am grateful Professor Finch didn’t tolerate my mistakes to protect my feelings. As a child, I had held compassion as the highest virtue, but later I questioned: has compassion become a moral burden on the competent to endure the incompetent?

While reporting for the Rockbridge Report, I covered news including the Lee-Jackson Day Parade, Lexington’s city budget and Rockbridge County’s use of an inappropriate method to calculate childhood obesity rates. But one conversation that never made it into any story taught me the most invaluable lesson. It helped me comprehend what Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos said at Princeton University’s 2010 commencement, “cleverness is a gift; kindness is a choice.”

A group of protesters had gathered around a local politician’s house to vent their anger at a piece of law the politician supports. I visited half an hour later to gather information for a story on the controversial law. The politician, who had gained my respect from previous interactions, had been just like other politicians: confident, intelligent, formal, mysterious, etc. But that day, there I was — sitting on the floor, a few steps away from the person who sat on the stairs facing me. Still shocked and evidently a bit upset, the person said passing that bill was the right thing to do and explained why, but didn’t blame the demonstrators for a second.

The setting sun shone through the windows and lit the person’s face, and moist eyes. I didn’t record the conversation or photograph the scene. Perhaps compassion is as simple as empathizing with someone when the world and all its competing interests are too absorbed in an inflamed moment. If I happened to see Batman break down in his own house, would I report it?

My professors agreed that I did the right thing, which gave me confidence in both the decision and the education I have received. Law grants journalists no more or fewer rights than the public to know the truth. Yet we are often privileged to be at the right place at the right time, and are trusted to share an unusual moment — sometimes of vulnerability, frustration or shame. That, however, doesn’t entitle us to ruin a person’s public image in order to attract eyeballs.

After reporting for the Rockbridge Report, I did three newspaper internships in Washington, D.C., Richmond, Va. and Charlotte, N.C. In those newsrooms surrounded by professional journalists, I still emailed my professors when I needed honest advice. I trust them and they trust me because they watched me grow as a reporter, I have seen them practice what they preach; they know the choices I have made and they have defended me.

Now an editor of the Rockbridge Report, I still struggle with a lot of questions, but I have come to enjoy questioning. In journalism, that will never cease.

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Hometown: Beijing

Major: Business Journalism

Extracurricular Involvement:

  • Honor Advocate
  • Peer tutor
  • Phonathon caller
  • Former Ring-tum Phi reporter
  • Rockbridge Report anchor

Off-Campus Experiences:

  • Wash Term participant and intern report at The Hill, newspaper (Washington, D.C.)
  • Business news intern at the Richmond Times-Dispatch
  • Business news intern at the Charlotte Observer
  • Studied abroad/home in Hong Kong, China

Favorite Class: Social Revolutions. Professor McCaughrin discussed proximity theory applied in elections and the conditions necessary for disruptions to occur. There was only one other student in the class — we loved it. The side effect of the course is that I can’t help but think about what Trump has revealed about American voters’ preference profile and distribution. That is scary.

What professor has inspired you? There are so many inspiring professors on campus, but if I only get to choose one it would be Professor Luecke. She never talks about the two Pulitzer-winning projects she supervised or how much she cares about her students, but she will tirelessly correct all the “less people” to “fewer people” and occasionally send us emails on the weekend if she sees an interesting job post. She will humorously remind students to behave during Fancy Dress weekend, and sometimes postpone a deadline if she senses stress. But when it comes to dealing with PR — aka people on the dark side, it’s all “fair game.”