As protests reach critical mass, how to really be there for your journalism students

Plus tips for students on covering and staying safe at protests

June 14, 2020

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Reaching critical mass

In a Twitter thread that went viral this month, comedian Kenny DeForest told the story of being at a club when Dave Chappelle performed a surprise set. Riffing on headlines shouted out by the crowd, Chappelle ended up addressing systemic racism after cruel comments from a white woman whose privilege was showing (OK, glaring).

According to DeForest, Chappelle recounted a story about a South African friend who told him that once that country’s citizens’ disgust over apartheid reached a peak, there was no turning back and no choice but to reform the country. Chappelle said that America needed that critical mass if it was ever going to end systemic racism.

He delivered that set in 2015.

Point being: Pollsters are increasingly suggesting that America is tipping toward critical mass. For your students, that means more protests and another major news cycle as our federal, state and local governments presumably take action. For your Black students, that means even more trauma and anxiety. And of course this comes on the heels of marathon coronavirus coverage conducted remotely in isolation — strains on all of us, but felt especially intensely by students, whose peers are often the most important people in their world.

Student journalists work intensely, often easily putting in full-time level work at their college media outlet while working toward a degree. It’s both exhilarating and exhausting, and their summers used to look a lot different — they got a break through class cessation, lighter summer audiences or a complete change of pace with internships (you know, where the entire publication or broadcast isn’t riding on their shoulders).

It’s critical that student media advisers, directors and caring professors (whoever has a stake in your college’s student media) have conversations with student staffers. They are worn out beyond belief, and if they are Black, it’s even almost surely worse.

Talking to them about their experiences and feelings is vastly more worthwhile and valuable, I think, than many professionals realize. Simply providing them the space to listen and be made to feel that their coverage is making a difference is one of the most powerful tools in your arsenal.

Avoid giving advice. Don’t offer them feedback about their journalistic performance. And resist the urge to tell them “Back when *I* was covering Protest Z …” Your job here is to simply be present and listen.

Ask open-ended questions like,

  •  Tell me more about what you’ve seen at the protests.
  •  What do you think about all this?
  •  What are you taking away from this experience?

Then just let them talk. Plan on half an hour per student if you’re serious about this. Don’t veer toward the positive, say you “totally understand” or remind them of better days to come — that’s an indication you’re minimizing their experience and aren’t connecting.

Some responses you might consider are things like:

  • Wow, that sounds really intense.
  • I’m proud of you for getting out there.
  • Tell me more.

The intensity of this news cycle shows no signs of slowing. Be there for your students.

Practical advice

Advisers have been busy the last two weeks keeping their student journalists safe and ethical when covering protests. Tom Nelson, the director of student media at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, shared this advice he gives to students, cobbled together from sources such as the Student Press Law Center and Poynter.

  • Remain safe at all times. Wear a mask. Do not engage in any activity that might threaten your safety.
  • Always identify yourself as a journalist before you conduct any interviews.
  • Go with an open mind. Make notes about your observations of the crowd in real time. Is the mood tense? Is it jubilant? What does it seem like? Paint a picture for me with your words so that I can see what is happening even though I am not there.
  • If you interview protesters, you should also attempt to interview police/authorities. To do this, go to the front line, identify yourself. “I am with the student newspaper. I would like to speak to an officer in charge to get their perspective of the protest.”
  • Protester or journalist. Pick one. You cannot flip a switch minute-to-minute. You can go and observe what is happening and then get into active reporter mode, but ethical considerations related to conflict of interest prevent you from actively engaging in the protest (even to chant or sing).
  • Anyone (including minor children) who are in a public place are 100% allowed to be photographed or video recorded for news purposes. There are no waivers and there is no anonymity. Protesters do not have any rights to their images and they cannot demand that you erase/delete anything. (Editor’s note: There is an increasing call to avoid identifying protesters. Poynter recently wrote about the ethical obligations of photographers.)
  • Same for anyone in authority. The police/public safety/other authority figures do not have the right to demand you erase any photos or video. Period. If you are threatened in that way, call your editor or adviser immediately.
  • If you are going to get the best content, you are going to need to be a little bit assertive. You will need to engage people (calmly). To get the best photos and video, you will need to be able to safely move about the crowd. For examples of some excellent student journalist photos, check out the Cal State Long Beach college journalists’ coverage of a protest there.
  • More tips and resources from the Student Press Law Center.

Continuing education

My friend Joy Mayer at Trusting News posted this week that they’ve designed a special version of their free Trust 101 class specifically for educators. She wrote “Our hope is that you’ll help your students understand the media landscape they’ll be working in and how to address misassumptions about journalism. Over two weeks, we’ll help you craft a plan to incorporate trust-building strategies into your instruction. We’ll give you ready-made slide decks and assignments and help you adapt them to your own work in classrooms, workshops and student media.”

And of course, Teachapalooza (virtual version) is coming up … have you registered? It’s one intense, valuable day for just $49.

One fun video

This week’s “Patriot Act with Hasan Minhaj” is called “The News Industry Is Being Destroyed.” It’s a glorious homage to local newspapers, and while the title is a downer, it’s actually pretty informative and perfect for classes. Of course, it’s not technically SFW but if you’re comfortable assigning your students to watch John Oliver’s “Last Week Tonight,” this will be OK.

Localization ideas

  • The Daily Northwestern interviewed some Black faculty and alumni about their experiences in professional journalism and academia. These kind of step-aside-and-let-someone-else-talk pieces are inherently valuable and worth the time to collect. You’re also showing students the reality that there are disproportionately fewer Black journalists and academics in America.
  • Did you know that Sikhs have a centuries-old faith tradition of feeding anyone in need? I felt so informed by this piece from The New York Times: “An essential part of Sikhism is langar, the practice of preparing and serving a free meal to promote the Sikh tenet of seva, or selfless service.” It begs the question: Does your college town have a Sikh population (probably so) and could you work with it to write and shoot a similar feature? (And once again, this exposes your White, Christian students to more diversity.)

Follow the money

Now more than ever, the bottom lines at student newspapers are critical. Paper Money is a training program managed by the Society of Professional Journalists in partnership with Flytedesk and CNBAM to offer in-depth financial training to your revenue side department. Applications are now available.

Reading list

Barbara Allen is the director of college programming. She can be reached at ballen@poynter.org or on Twittter, @barbara_allen_.