Being a student journalist in the times of coronavirus

by | May 13, 2020 | Blog

Student journalists are a vital part of news ecosystems, especially in parts of the country where local papers have gone under and closed their doors

Student journalists’ challenge during this time is the same as their professional counterparts: providing up-to-date and accurate coverage on top of balancing the responsibilities of being a student and a safe citizen. 

Itzia Crespo is a reporter for the State Press Magazine, Arizona State University’s student magazine. She lives with her parents, her uncle, her brother and his girlfriend in north Phoenix. She said quarantining makes it more difficult to do almost everything at her job, and she’s being forced to adjust to her new reporting conditions. 

“It definitely hit me as soon as we came back during our first pitch meeting,” Crespo, a journalism junior, says. She tried to find events to cover, but coronavirus quickly put a stop to that “because everything was being canceled.”

Crespo is trying new ways to report and observe her source’s surroundings.

“For magazine writing, it’s just about getting the environment in your brain. So I think sometimes it’s a little bit awkward to ask those questions of like, ‘Describe your environment’ … but it can make or break a story, so I think it’s important to get that.”

Most recently, Crespo wrote about ASU’s shark and fish conservation lab. Because she couldn’t interview sources in-person, she’s adapted by asking them to describe their home environment  — giving each interview the flair of an MTV Cribs episode. 

Marcella Baietto, a politics reporter and anchor for Cronkite News, experienced her last day inside Cronkite News before she even knew it. ASU’s campus shut down during spring break, so there were no classes for her to return to. 

Since then, Baietto’s been working at her family’s home in Phoenix and has had to improvise equipment that she would typically have in the newsroom. 

“I just looked up ‘DIY homemade teleprompter,'” Baietto says. The result: a very involved do-it-yourself tutorial using strings, a box and glass. “I’m like ‘Wait, I feel like I can do this from home.’”

Like any enterprising college student, Baietto took to Twitter to share her DIY teleprompter with her followers. The behind-the-scenes display of transparency shows the stark contrast of resources available for student journalists versus their professional counterparts. Even those as heavily involved as Baietto are barred from checking out camera and audio equipment from Cronkite’s broadcast lab because The Cronkite Building is shut down, putting the impetus on students to have their own resources. Many of the cameras students use cost $1,000; some even exceed $3,000. 

Video calls have been useful, Baietto says, but she has to make sure her room is clean before the call to maintain her professionalism. Video calls can also highlight the wealth disparities of students, and some have the added stress of creating a workplace they feel comfortable showing to sources, classmates and, occasionally, the world, in standups in broadcasts reports.

Yet it’s also an opportunity to show the real lives of journalists — many of whom are sharing pieces of their lives that they wouldn’t under non-pandemic circumstances. 

While broadcast journalists can still interview sources with the use of phone or video calls, photojournalists face a particular challenge as they can’t go really anywhere to take photos. They’re having to find new solutions to represent their coverage. 

State Press Photo Editor B Moffat’s job has been turned completely upside down. She lives with her mom and 77-year-old father, who because of his age is at a greater risk to contract COVID-19. 

“It’s just frustrating to me because this is the story of our lifetimes,” Moffat said. “We’ve been relying a lot on the illustration desk. And that desk has been absolutely killing it. They’ve totally put the team on their back. It’s frustrating not being able to contribute as much.”

Moffat also described her frustrations at not being able to mentor the freshmen on her staff — one of the most rewarding parts of her job — and that she basically “relieved them of their duties” to avoid sending them into the pandemic. 

Living at home is a difficulty in itself. It’s a distraction for Crespo, a struggle to find a work-life balance for Baietto and a source of anxiety for Moffat and her immunocompromised parent.

Crespo says at any moment, she could be interrupted or distracted by her family or, more likely, one of her pets. 

“I honestly just kind of lock myself in my room, which is what I’m doing now, but that can only work so much,” Crespo said. “Before, I would do as much as I could at school just to have a different mindset. It’s just about trying to set up an environment for yourself to work at home.”

Baietto says she had “never thought in a million years” TV reporters could work from home. 

“But through the technology, and because of Zoom and FaceTime interviews and all the technology that we have at our disposal, it’s made it …  relatively easy to kind of transition,” Baietto said.