University of Utah student Andrew Goaslind takes a rapid COVID-19 test, Nov. 18, 2020, in Salt Lake City.
University of Utah student Andrew Goaslind takes a rapid COVID-19 test, Nov. 18, 2020, in Salt Lake City.

College student journalists have been at the forefront of university COVID-19 coverage, breaking news stories about campus outbreaks and holding university leadership accountable for its handling of the pandemic.

But COVID-19 has been a challenge for students, too, as many college papers have had to maintain virtual newsrooms, cut back print editions, and struggle to build rapport among their remote teams.

Student newspapers have offered a unique inside scoop about how students are navigating the pandemic.

“We know of student hospitalizations that the university doesn’t because they have to be self-reported to the university,” said Eli Hoff, managing editor for the University of Missouri’s The Maneater.

“And we as students are more likely to get in contact with those people than university administrators can or middle-age town newspapers can because we’re students, they’re students and there’s more of a connection there,” said Hoff.

Because they are on the front line of coverage, the responsibility is large, Hoff said.

“There’s more of a burden of responsibility on us as student journalists to be on the ground for whatever reporting we can and being the first to get that kind of information just because we have access to it. It kind of falls to us to report it,” he said.

Matt Cohen was a sports reporter for the Indiana Daily Student at Indiana University in Bloomington before switching to the enterprise team when most collegiate sports events were canceled because of the coronavirus, which causes the COVID-19 disease.

Michigan University fans watch during the first half of an NCAA college football game against Indiana at Memorial Stadium, Nov. 7, 2020, in Bloomington, Indiana.

“Being stuck on Zoom is hard,” said Cohen. “It’s been a challenge trying to really be in depth in your reporting when you can’t be there.”

“Journalism wasn’t meant to be done remotely,” he said.

Being insider and outsider

Covering your peer group is another challenge for student journalists.

“It’s hard because Greek life students here never want to talk to me or the media, because we always make them look bad,” Cohen said. “And they’re not wrong, that’s true.

“But also, you know, they do stupid stuff like throw parties of 100 people in the middle of a pandemic and there’s not really a way to put a positive spin on that … so it’s hard to actually get access, but I got better as I got more into it,” he said.

Cohen said he received some criticism from fraternities and sororities after reporting on the suspension of several IU students following large football celebrations when Indiana University beat Pennsylvania State University, commonly referred to as Penn State.

“I think sometimes people have a hard time differentiating what is the media and what is the school, and people were all coming after me about not letting college students have fun or whatever. Not letting them be kids,” he added.

The IU Barstool — a sports and pop culture blog popular on campuses nationwide — tweeted a meme mocking him, he said. Cohen said he took it in good humor.

On the COVID front lines

Being on the ground, collegiate journalists are a watchdog of their university’s handling of the coronavirus.

“We just had an issue where we asked the question: ‘How many students report their own cases?’ And we found that 60% of students don’t even know how to report their own cases to the university,” said Maxwell Mayleben, editor in chief for The Reporter at Minnesota State University at Mankato.

“So, our numbers look really good, but are they reflecting what it actually is? We’re asking those kinds of questions,” he said.

“We’ve also been doing a lot of editorials this year, too. Basically, kind of calling out the university and asking, ‘Are you doing enough?’ or ‘Is it too much?’ We’re taking a stance on what we want to see from the university and what students should expect from the university,” he added.

Challenging institutions

At the University of Missouri System, President Mun Choi blocked students on Twitter at the beginning of the semester because of criticism following his handling of the coronavirus on campus. 

“That’s obviously a concern because his Twitter account is something used to send public information and in a pandemic that’s extra important,” said Hoff.  

Students filed what’s called a sunshine request to gain access. By morning, Choi had unblocked everyone.

“So that was reassuring to see, and we were proud with the sunshine case that we were able to legally prove it was a public account,” he added.

“We’ve made them mad on occasion. We’ve done some coverage that is negative and done some editorials that are very, very critical of them. We called for the resignation of our university chancellor at the start of the school year. We haven’t been afraid to do that, but we’ve been able to remain entirely independent,” said Hoff.

Megan Mittelhammer, news editor for The Red & Black, an independent student newspaper serving the University of Georgia, said accountability was one of the things the publication focused on most this semester.

“Towards the end of summer, before the start of the semester, we had a UGA housing employee die of COVID, but the university refused to report the name and acknowledge that COVID was the cause of death, so we had to find out through the county coroner. And so, a lot of students, faculty, [and] staff were obviously upset,” said Mittelhammer.

UGA said the school’s privacy policy didn’t allow it to comment on the death of an employee, Mittelhammer said.

“So that was kind of the first little hint of like, ‘OK, what else? Are they not going to report before we go back to school? Will they report these numbers accurately?’ " she said.

Mittelhammer also said The Red & Black reported on the reliability of the University of Georgia’s COVID-19 self-screening tool, DawgCheck.

FILE - Protesters march opposing in-person classes at Georgia Tech in Atlanta, Aug. 17, 2020. More of the state public universities are opening for the fall term.

While it is mandatory for faculty, staff and students to report a positive COVID-19 test through DawgCheck, some people don’t, she said.

“So, towards the middle of August, when everybody was back, we had sorority and fraternity parties downtown. We saw a big spike in cases about two or three weeks later after we got back,” she explained. “What’s accurately being detected on campus?”

Remaining steady

For most student newspapers, the pandemic has also forced a once busy newsroom onto a virtual platform, often delaying production and making it difficult to build rapport among members.

“Normally, we would have weekly staff meetings in person, but now it’s all on Zoom, as if Zoom classes weren’t enough,” said Mansoor Ahmad, an international student from Pakistan and the photo/web editor for The Reporter at Minnesota State University at Mankato.

Maneater’s managing editor Hoff said that because of their remote work it has been challenging to build a sense of camaraderie among the members.

“I’m able to read a lot of content, see a lot of bylines, but I’m not able to know the person behind that byline ... know who’s stuff I’m editing,” said Hoff. 

“It’s hard when my only interaction with someone is through Google Drive comments,” said Hoff. “I’m trying to be super-duper nice in the comments because I don’t want to go in with harsh edits and be the jerk editor because we meet through Google Drive.”

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