Last week, students in two journalism courses sent Mariette DiChristina, dean of the College of Communication, a petition. Their complaints concerned assignments given to them by their professor, Peter Smith, that encouraged in-person reporting.
The petition, sent to DiChristina Wednesday, was written by a collective of students from the JO 205 and JO 304 classes, all of whom chose to remain anonymous. The petition stated that their assignment would “require us to report on the ground, at a time when this would mean going against government orders and/or risking our health and that of others.”
DiChristina replied to the students the same day clarifying that no in-person reporting was required and all interviews can be done remotely.
Smith said his intention was never to put students in an unsafe situation and that the on-foot reporting was never a requirement. In an email to all his students clarifying his assignments, he wrote that he only wanted his students to go out and report if their state would permit it, if their family was in support of their choice and if they felt comfortable doing so.
“If you can go outside and you feel safe in doing so, and you are following all rules, laws and advice available to you, please do so safely,” Smith wrote in the email. “Don’t touch things, and do not make physical contact with anyone. As I have repeatedly said for weeks, do not go outside if you do not feel safe in doing so. Do not do any reporting that makes you feel unsafe.”
One of Smith’s students, who chose to remain anonymous, said she was glad Smith clarified that students merely had the option to go out and report if they felt comfortable, but was worried about receiving a lower grade for not doing so herself.
“Hopefully we won’t be graded down if we don’t go out like students who can go out and take the initiative to report,” she said.
Smith said he recognizes that situations for each student vary depending on where they live, which is part of why he made the in-person reporting an optional portion of the project. He also said he’s encouraging students to communicate with their families about what they want to do for assignments.
“We’re not standardizing anything, because I do have a student in Paris, and I do have a student in LA and I do have students in New York … They are from all over,” Smith said. “I’m in touch with them regularly, communicating with them regularly and I know it’s not standardized across the board. One of the things I have been emphasizing most is to listen to your parents.”
However, the students wrote in their petition that this optional component should be taken away altogether as it can be interpreted as pressuring students to leave their house.
“As journalism students, we understand that reporting during times of crisis, such as now, is important,” they wrote, “but we also believe that there are more responsible and safe ways to continue our reporting without pressuring anyone to leave their homes.”
Smith also said that he wishes he had been more clear when giving out his assignment, and said he apologizes for any pressure it may have put on students.
“I feel bad about contradicting any issues my students might be having, so if they misunderstood me, or if I wasn’t clear, I apologize to them for that,” Smith said. “Maybe I wasn’t always articulate because this is new, even for me, to teach about reporting safely in a situation like this. I don’t want to contradict anybody who might have said ‘oh boy, that made me feel uncomfortable,’ so I apologize to any of those students.”
In his email to students, Smith wrote that he encouraged students to utilize the resources technology could provide them to make up for the lack of typical reporting.
“Use social media in your reporting whenever possible. Embed tweets in your story. Reach out to people in your community using Facebook groups,” Smith wrote. “Use Skype, Zoom and FaceTime to record your interviews. Ask reliable sources to send you photos and video clips, and try to give them guidance as to how to frame visuals that will help with your reporting.”
In their petition, however, Smith’s students wrote that even these alternatives may not be feasible.
“Although our professor has given us permission to obtain footage from our sources, this places our interview subjects in a difficult position, for they are expected to provide us with a variety of videos under less than ideal circumstances,” the students wrote. “In our view, this puts an incredible amount of pressure on our subjects, as well as students who have to decide between achieving a good grade in the class and making tough decisions in their personal life about their health and safety.”
Smith said he will be working with his students to make sure all of them can complete their assignments in a way that they feel comfortable with, and that the circumstances of remote learning could open the door for his students to learn more about how to use social media as journalists.
“I feel like we need to be flexible, we need to be innovative as journalists, and I think in situations like this, there’s so much that you can do with social media that we’ve probably overlooked until now,” Smith said. “So, I think [students] are going to gain a lot of knowledge that they wouldn’t have without this crisis going on.”
The student said that despite the difficulties student journalists face at this time with their inability to report traditionally and so many assignments being altered, there is still a lot for her and her classmates to learn from this pandemic.
“I think hindsight will be 2020 for us,” she said. “There is really interesting reporting taking place from citizen journalists right now, like doctors and other frontline workers who are just going out and recording what’s happening, which is obviously very harrowing. And I think we’ll have a lot to learn from them.”