Student reporters have been on the frontlines of COVID-19 news coverage at their universities.
This year, many of them broke stories about the spread of the new coronavirus on school grounds. They also brought attention to how university leaders dealt with the pandemic.
Many students working for college newspapers have had to work in virtual newsrooms. And they have struggled to build relationships with their virtual teams.
Student newspapers provide an inside look at how students are dealing with the pandemic.
Eli Hoff is managing editor for the University of Missouri’s The Maneater newspaper. In the fall, he explained that student papers are more likely to have a connection to students than school officials or town newspapers do.
“We know of student hospitalizations that the university doesn’t because they have to be self-reported to the university,” he said.
And, Hoff noted, student reporters feel more responsible to report that kind of information “just because we have access to it.”
Matt Cohen is a former sports reporter for the Indiana Daily Student at Indiana University in Bloomington. He began reporting about other subjects when most college sports were canceled.
“Being stuck on Zoom is hard,” said Cohen about using online video communications. It has been difficult “trying to really be in depth in your reporting when you can’t be there.”
News reporting was not meant to be done virtually, he added.
An insider and outsider
Writing about one’s fellow students can be difficult for student reporters.
Cohen said fraternity and sorority students at his school “never want to talk to me or the media, because we always make them look bad. And they’re not wrong. That’s true.”
But, he said, they were also doing “stupid” things like having “parties of 100 people in the middle of a pandemic.” There is not really a way to make that look good, he noted.
Cohen said some of these groups criticized him when he wrote about the suspension of students after football game celebrations.
There was even a meme made about him.
The sports and popular culture website IU Barstool published a meme on Twitter making fun of Cohen. He said he took it in good humor.
The COVID frontlines
Collegiate reporters have also been the watchers of their university’s reaction to the coronavirus crisis.
Maxwell Mayleben is editor in chief for The Reporter at Minnesota State University at Mankato. His paper found that 60 percent of students do not know how to report their own coronavirus cases to the school.
“So, our numbers look really good, but are they reflecting what it actually is? We’re asking those kinds of questions,” Mayleben said.
His newspaper also wrote an opinion piece in 2020 about “what we want to see from the university and what students should expect” from it.
At the University of Missouri System, President Mun Choi blocked students on Twitter at the beginning of the autumn term. He was reacting to criticism following his handling of the virus on school grounds. The blocking is of concern because the president’s Twitter account is used to send public information “and in a pandemic that’s extra important,” said Hoff.
Schools filed what is called a sunshine request to gain access. By morning, Choi had unblocked everyone. Hoff said it was great to see and they were proud that they were able to legally prove it was a public account.
His newspaper has also done some opinion pieces that strongly criticized university decision-makers. At the start of the fall term, for example, the newspaper called for the resignation of a top university official.
Megan Mittelhammer is news editor for The Red & Black, an independent student newspaper serving the University of Georgia, or UGA. She said accountability was the most important issue to the publication during the fall term.
Before the start of the semester, a UGA housing employee died of COVID-19. But, Mittelhammer said the university refused to give the name of the person or admit that COVID-19 was the cause of death. So the newspaper found out through the local coroner. And a lot of students, professors and employees were clearly unhappy about that, explained Mittelhammer.
UGA said the school’s policy prevented it from commenting on the death of an employee, she said.
Mittelhammer said The Red & Black also reported on the dependability of UGA’s COVID-19 self-check tool, DawgCheck. Professors, employees and students are required to report a positive COVID-19 test through DawgCheck. But some people do not, she said.