2020 Daniel Pearl Intern: Elena Shao

Elena Shao
Elena Shao

Elena Shao has been chosen as the 2020 Daniel Pearl Memorial Journalism Intern. Shao is a junior majoring in Political Science. She has previously reported on environment policies, business, and technology for the San Francisco Chronicle. She is also a news editor at The Stanford Daily and enjoys learning foreign languages.

A committee of Stanford Department of Communication faculty members evaluated applicants for the internship. The Wall Street Journal made the final decision.

The internship was established to commemorate the work and ideals of Pearl, a Stanford graduate and Wall Street Journal foreign correspondent who was kidnapped and murdered in Pakistan in 2002. Pearl, a 1985 graduate of the Department of Communication, was kidnapped in Karachi on Jan. 23, 2002, while working on a story retracing the steps of “shoe bomber” Richard Reid. A month later, on Feb. 21, his captors released a videotape of his slaying. He was 38.

Shao’s Winning Essay

My roots are in Georgia — I’ve spent an entire childhood eating at Waffle House and vocalizing disapproval whenever someone dared to drink Pepsi instead of Coke, or have their tea iced instead of sweet.

But, our proximity to Atlanta often meant we’d pass feverish displays of Confederate flags, a reminder to the big city that skyscrapers and corporations couldn’t completely reshape the region’s cultural and historical landscape. Knowing the implications of that symbol, and seeing affirmations of an ignorant South in news, books and movies, I began to cut away at the “Southerner” label.

The summer after my sophomore year in high school, I attended a program and signed up for a class called “Growing Up in the New South,” thinking I’d finally get to figure out just why the South was so backward.

We interviewed people in the area that told us the narratives that the news never seemed to cover — stories about living in rural Valdosta, where people were expected to repay the community that built them for the rest of their lives, and as a result stayed within almost completely segregated societies for generations. We heard from Pike County officials who attempted to start conversations on racial healing while also having to deal with harsh economic disparity driving class conflict. We visited the nearby Sunset Hill Cemetery, read the stories etched onto stone, saw the section dedicated to fallen slaves.

Far from feeling like I had been right all along, I instead started grasping that the sentiments of Southern shame and guilt versus its pride and tradition existed not in a dichotomy, but in a duality. Do Southerners allow culture to evolve, or does that strip them of the validity of their experiences? Does it mean they are allowing the criminalization of their own heritage?

Since then, I’ve been able to embark on reporting projects that push me to look underneath the surface of the politicized narratives and attempt to tell those stories to people of other cultures and walks of life. When the biggest recycling centers in California closed down, I spent an entire day walking the streets of San Francisco, talking to many homeless and low-income individuals, many of whom didn’t speak English, about what they would do now that a major part of their income was gone. When PG&E announced its power shutoffs, I interviewed people who’d seen their houses burned down in a wildfire now have to find a way to afford a $6000 generator to power up an emergency oxygen tank.

At sixteen I had one of my first ventures into what I now see as the spirit and essence of journalism that Daniel Pearl embodied in his work — it’s about showing empathy for humanity, about treating people’s experiences with dignity and respect despite preconceived notions, about asking hard questions that challenge what you may believe so strongly — because in the end it teaches you about someone else. And as journalists we’re fortunate to get to share what we learn with others.