Of late, Sarah Palin has been showing a more independent mind on the stump. She’s been at odds with the McCain campaign, publicly disagreeing with McCain’s decision to withdraw from Michigan and questioning the unofficial moratorium on rhetoric pertaining to the Reverend Jeremiah Wright.

And the press has had a field day with this newfound independence. She’s gone rogue! She’s out-mavericked the maverick! Enter Sarah the Diva!

Seeping into these reports is the big question of What Will Palin Do Next? Already, there’s been talk of Palin’s desirability as a talk show host (one-topic, not wide-ranging, à la Tyra Banks) or a conservative cable news star (as the New Yorker’s James Surowiecki suggested, “something similar to what Sean Hannity does”). The Washington Post’s Chris Cilizza has noted that, regardless of the outcome, Palin will leave the election race with “extremely high name identification nationwide” and will therefore be a “rockstar on the Republican fundraising circuit” for years to come. And of course, at the far end of the spectrum, there’s talk of a presidential run in 2012 or 2016.

Despite the temptation to revel in/report on these possible future scenarios (including the, ahem, astute suggestion of a reality TV show with the Palin family, a cross between “The Osbornes” and “Northern Exposure”), it’s important for reporters to refrain from parlaying details from the election’s last week into a more speculative, and ultimately less responsible narrative of Palin’s future trajectory.

For instance, a New York Times article that suggests Palin’s current actions are preparations for her post-election prospects states: “there are signs that she…is making sure that she is well positioned for the future if she and Mr. McCain lose.”

What signs, exactly? The article, written by Kate Zernike and Monica Davey, points to Palin’s speech today on energy security “in a week that most candidates give over to big rallies and closing arguments,” and says her aides are calling it a move “to help her be seen as more substantive.” It also points to the fact that, on Monday, “she held a brief meeting with the Israeli ambassador, reflecting an interest that aides say she expresses in intense foreign policy tutorials,” and that she has been doing more off-the-cuff interviews with the press, “sending staff members scurrying to cut off conversations.” Finally, it notes that she has “this week tried to quarantine herself from the damage caused by news that the Republican National Committee had spent $150,000 on clothing and accessories for her and her family.”

Wait, you mean Palin wouldn’t be doing these things if she had no aspirations beyond being McCain’s vice president?

While these points may segue nicely into speculative territory, they are also completely valid steps for a vice presidential candidate (especially one who has received so much flak for offering style over substance) to take at the end of an election campaign. For Palin to attempt to “show her depth” by addressing policy or to persuade voters to see her as a substantive candidate, even at such a late date, is still within the realm of the ’08 campaign—not necessarily preparation for a bigger and brighter future.

To make that leap in reasoning is to forget that Palin first and foremost has a time-sensitive goal that requires certain actions. In other words, please don’t project—campaign actions may very well just be campaign actions. While frustrated McCain advisers might label Palin’s behavior “going rogue,” reporters must report these developments in context—i.e. that Palin’s going off-message seems to signal a breach within the McCain camp—and not to extrapolate what this means for the GOP ticket in 2012.

Here’s a larger snippet from the NYT article, which seeks to build up that trajectory:

The presidential campaign has allowed Ms. Palin to develop as a candidate, and to make many useful connections as she travels the country. On the campaign, she has become close to people with extensive experience in Republican politics, including Steve Biegun and Randy Scheunemann, two foreign policy conservatives.

Jane Kim is a writer in New York.