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News / Nation & World

Amid campus protests against Israel-Hamas war, student journalists assume the spotlight

By Kate Armanini, Chicago Tribune
Published: May 26, 2024, 6:00am

CHICAGO — It was an unusual gathering. Amid a torrential downpour, two high-ranking University of Notre Dame officials and a handful of student organizers huddled under a tree late at night. The students had attempted to erect a pro-Palestinian encampment on campus May 2. Now, they hoped to negotiate.

Four reporters with the university’s student newspaper, the Observer, watched from afar. They were soaking wet from hours in the rain. They were also the only journalists on campus, where pre-clearance is required for outside media.

“In that moment, it was very much like, ‘We need to document this story,’” said junior Isa Sheikh, the newspaper’s editor-in-chief. “We were the only outlet on the ground.”

When 17 students were arrested later that night, the Observer was the first to break the news. They worked in their office until 4 a.m. the next day.

“Staying up all night in the midst of finals wasn’t great,” Sheikh said with a laugh. “But for me, the first priority is the paper and our coverage of the campus.”

Student journalists across the Midwest and the country have been thrust into the spotlight as protests against the Israel-Hamas War engulfed universities. With firsthand campus knowledge, they have provided some of the most detailed, compelling coverage of the movement that swept the country.

In Chicago, Palestine solidarity encampments have been assembled at Northwestern University, the University of Chicago and DePaul University, with students demanding divestment from financial assets tied to Israel. The DePaul encampment stood for 17 days before it was cleared Thursday. Meanwhile, U. of C. students briefly occupied a campus building Friday during the school’s alumni weekend. The student newspapers at all three universities have continuously posted live updates, offering minute-by-minute coverage of the unrest rocking their campuses.

“I don’t think you can understate the importance of the student press,” said Roger Boye, an associate professor emeritus-in-service at Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism. “They’ve outmaneuvered the professional press, in many of these cases.”

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The reporting has been applauded at a national level. The Pulitzer Prize Board — which is housed at Columbia University, the site of the first solidarity encampment — released a statement May 1 recognizing “the tireless efforts of student journalists” covering protests while facing “great personal and academic risk.” On the front lines, student reporters have been assaulted at UCLA and arrested at Dartmouth College.

Senior Lilly Keller was acutely aware of the risk on the fifth day of DePaul’s encampment, reporting at the center of a bitter clash with counterprotesters. Chicago police flanked the crowd on both sides, spilling into the street. She watched as students climbed the towering campus gates, unfurling both Israeli and Palestinian flags. The tension was palpable.

“When I first got there, I was live-tweeting, and, like, crying,” said Keller, editor-in-chief of the DePaulia. “But just jumping in, and doing the best we can, that’s all we have.”

The DePaulia has struggled with staffing — only five reporters and editors have consistently been involved in the student newspaper’s recent coverage. When the encampment was first erected, the team took shifts to cover 12-hour days. They set up a makeshift media tent across from the demonstration, with the word “press” scrawled across in black marker.

More than two weeks in, their reporting has blurred into midterms and family events.

“It’s been a lot,” Keller said. “But for me, and I think for other members of the DePaulia, it’s really rooted in our commitment to being journalists and our love for what we’re doing.”

Weeks earlier, the Daily Northwestern staff anticipated escalation. Editor-in-chief Jacob Wendler solicited advice from student journalists at Columbia and Vanderbilt University who had already grappled with demonstrations.

It paid off. When students and faculty descended on Deering Meadow on April 25, the Daily already had a detailed reporting plan. Two reporters were to remain at the encampment at all times, with an editor on-call. About two dozen students were involved with coverage in total.

“In terms of the workload, it was much more intense than anything we’ve experienced in the past,” said Wendler, a junior. “It was a new level of constant breaking news.”

On the first day, the Daily posted more than a hundred live updates. They also broke several stories throughout the demonstration, including the resignation of seven members of Northwestern’s President’s Advisory Committee on Preventing Antisemitism and Hate.

“Because student journalists are part of the communities that they cover, and also have unparalleled access to their peers and their campuses, we were able to get a really different and much more nuanced picture of what’s happening,” Wendler said.

Wendler, as well as Sheikh of the Observer, instructed staffers to write their editors’ phone numbers on their wrists in case of arrest. At the May 2 protest, Notre Dame police had repeatedly told Observer reporters to leave the scene. They refused.

“It was funny because it was raining so hard that the phone numbers were smudging,” Sheikh said. “For a solid 20 minutes, I was ready for my night in jail.”

It was jarring for a group that had attended classes just hours before. Now, they were assuming the role of professional journalists in a tense encounter with police.

“The job they have undertaken is not an easy one,” Boye said. “They have gone the extra mile. Democracy is the critical underpinning of what we’re doing in journalism”

There’s also the dual challenge of reporting on other students. Those involved with the encampments and counterprotests may be the faces of peers, classmates, friends.

On a recent afternoon, DePaulia news editor Lucia Preziosi, a junior, sat on a bench near the center of the university’s encampment before it was cleared. The quad was quiet — only a few demonstrators had emerged from their tents, kicking a soccer ball back and forth. She waved to a few of them.

“Some of my best friends are here,” Preziosi said, gesturing to the tents. “It adds to the difficulty of ethically covering something like this. But it also motivates me to want to report on this more. There are people I care about on both sides, and they want their story told.”

The live updates page on the DePaulia’s website became one of the most viewed stories in the newspaper’s history.

“Being a journalist in this has been the most amazing learning experience I’ve ever had in my life,” Preziosi said. “We have a certain connection to this place. And I think it shines through in our work.”

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