News21’s COVID-19 Reporting Molds Caring Professional Journalists

This event was the fourth Must See Monday I’ve attended in person, after covering the audio and digital storytelling offering on October 18th for a video assignment in bootcamp, and then the last two which featured  disability and business award ceremonies for extra credit. Around 40 people were in attendance. It may sound like pandering, but I have had profound takeaways from each. It makes for a long day after attending morning classes, but  I can see why students are given incentive to attend.

Having applied for News21 this coming spring, I was grateful to hear from the program’s most recent cohort. The three students, Emma VandenEinde  and Prince James Story, who attended in person, and Amudalat Ajasa who joined via Zoom from Long Island, NY, were confident and impressive. They inspired me to continue to push myself, especially if  I am fortunate enough to be invited to participate. 

These frenetic months of bootcamp have distorted my sense of the time.  The stories in Unmasking America feel distant somehow, like the return to in-person learning has put  the pandemic behind us. The fresh recollections of the students and their apparent closeness with Venita Hawthorne James, who is a professor of practice and was the managing editor on the project and Jacquee Petchel, who was the executive editor, show the program’s transformative experience. 

One of the moments that resonated with me was when Hawthorne James described the importance of covering COVID-19 through the lens of underserved communities because, as she said, the pandemic “exacerbated inequalities in America.” I  also thought Petchel’s message about the need to be able to pivot was emblematic of my own experience living through this global tragedy. Flexibility was important for all of us during the pandemic, and it makes sense how that mentality was crucial for this project.

The program’s national coverage and the opportunity for students to go into these communities as professional journalists is remarkable, but it has the potential to be seen as parachute journalism. There is no hint of that in the quality, emotional, and candid interviews that the teams produced, so I asked what the journalists did to develop those relationships. Story said he built rapport by spending time with his subjects; being sincere and to be willing to disclose personal details to establish trust. VandenEinde added it’s important to take the time to research the communities. Hawthorne James cautioned against going into an area with preconceived  ideas about victims and saviors, and to instead let the story unfold through reporting. Ajasa talked about the pre interview process that helped build the trust and led to more access and candid moments from their subjects. She also said it is important to give your interview subjects context about the story to show how their experiences will help deliver a valuable message to the audience. I am anxious to apply their advice in my own reporting, whether it be through News21, Howard Center, or other opportunities to come.

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