Wednesday, December 2, 2020

As we read about the aggressive spread of Covid outbreaks this fall, some of the biggest contributors are on university campuses. At least Covid 214,000 cases have been linked to campuses, and it’s student journalists who are helping tell the story. As administrators and other staff try to diminish outbreak severity and manage damage control, it’s students who are holding them accountable, trying to keep people safe.

A lot of this is about economics

Colleges and universities need student tuition and other fees, and the surrounding communities count on student spending for food, entertainment and other necessities. There’s a lot of pressure to sweep Covid scandals under the rug and pretend that everything’s normal. It’s not just staff and administrators who are trying to ignore Covid outbreaks and rule violations. Students are some of the biggest offenders. Think back to your own college days—did you really think rules applied to you?

Student newspapers are now playing a major role in information delivery

Ironically, reporting on campus Covid outbreaks can be difficult because small town newspapers keep going out of business. But here’s where it gets interesting: Campus newspapers are picking up the slack, stepping up and covering the pandemic. They’re outing the administrators who are trying to squelch the truth about the coronavirus spread on campus. They’re reporting on students who are breaking quarantine because it puts everyone’s health in danger. These students are becoming an important voice for information-sharing.

  • In Arizona, The State Press broke the news that Arizona State students who were supposed to be in isolation hadsnuck out of their dorms.
  • At Indiana University, The Indiana Daily Student spoke toUber drivers who had picked up students under quarantine at sororities and fraternities.
  • “We all saw this coming,” wrote the editorial board of The Daily Tar Heel at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. They’re blaming administrators for poor planning as the school was forced to abandon in-person instruction.

“Student journalists are playing an incredibly important role in this moment, and they’re doing it in an environment where local news media is drying up or disappearing,” said Hadar Harris, the executive director of the Student Press Law Center.

Campus paper, The Alligator, has a staff of 60 student journalists

Kyle Wood, a journalism student at the University of Florida, works in one of the college communities where the campus publication, The Alligator, is now arguably better staffed than the local newspaper. “We’re filling holes where we see them,” said Mr. Wood, 22, who oversees a staff of about 60 journalists as The Alligator’s editor-in-chief.

  • He has added new beats, including coverage of K-12 education and small businesses, to report on the pandemic’s effect on the city.
  • The first story from the reporter on the paper’s new health beat followed a tip about lax safety procedures in the university hospital’s emergency room.
  • Wood is also working with reporters to updatea map that tracks the city’s Covid outbreaks.

College athletics programs in the spotlight

One coverage area where campus newspapers have traditionally excelled is sports, especially at large schools where college athletics generates big money. During the pandemic, campus sports were a big story because of the economics. When highly paid coaches and high-profile athletes test positive, it becomes a political and economic matter.

  • At the University of Virginia, The Cavalier Daily shed light on atesting disparity between athletes. It appears that high-profile players received tests three times a week; other athletes had to exaggerate symptoms just to get tested.
  • At Villanova, the big story is their basketball team, which currently fields several strong seniors with a shot at making it to the NBA. Disruptions to the schedule can affect whether professional scouts can watch them play. “If they lose this forum, their professional career is in jeopardy,” said Emily Cox, 21, a co-editor in chief atThe Villanovan. “We’re tracking that because no one else is covering it.”

Arielle Gordon, 21, a senior at Colorado College, helped start a newsletter to report on the pandemic on campus and in the surrounding community. After a spike of cases in late August, the school’s test positivity rate has stayed below 1%.“Our audience is definitely expanding as coronavirus cases pop up,” Ms. Gordon said. “People want to know what went wrong,” she said. “We’ve been trying to find out as much we can.”

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