National News (for a Night): Student Media Brings Insider Perspective to Debate Coverage

Access: a struggle that all journalists, even student writers, know well. But, every four years, a lucky group of student media outlets get the opportunity most merely dream of – access to the presidential debates.

This year, Hofstra University, Washington University in St. Louis, University of Nevada, Las Vegas, and Longwood University were selected as host Universities for official election debates. Although Hofstra and Washington University in St. Louis the opportunity for these campuses’ student journalists is hard to miss. In addition to gaining access to a national political event, student journalists from these Universities also get the chance to tell stories surrounding the debate from the unique perspectives of campus insiders.

The Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD) oversees media access to the events, and according to outlets on these campuses, was fair in giving student journalists the same level of access as big-name media organizations.

“We actually had the same access that pretty much any other media outlet, other than the main outlets that were broadcasting the debate,” said Michael Ortiz, editor-in-chief of Hofstra University’s student newspaper, The Hofstra Chronicle. “We had the same access that Politico had, the same access that Vice had, the same access that basically any other media organization had.” Ortiz believes that having this access to the debates was a “really incredible experience” for The Chronicle’s reporters.

Similarly, Bruce Avery, general manager at Hofstra’s WRHU Radio, explained in an interview with MediaFile that the CPD put forth clear media guidelines and grants equal access to all media outlets that follow the rules and meet the deadlines.

Though CPD media credentials are free, obtaining necessary equipment for reporting in debate halls is not. To offset costs, host universities charge for equipment – anything from a chair to a trashcan. While these rentals are expensive, Avery pointed out that on most campuses, the equipment charges apply to any organization – on campus or otherwise – that wishes to use them. Smaller student outlets, like WRHU, require less equipment than the bigger media outlets, so they typically have a cost advantage in spending less than national news organizations to cover debates.

This advantage is even more pronounced when the University itself is willing to lend a hand. Vice-Presidential debate host Longwood University took a proactive role and helped its student outlets with the costs and logistics of covering the debate.

Halle Parker, editor-in-chief of The Rotunda, Longwood University’s student newspaper, told MediaFile that her outlet “worked with the public relations department of Longwood University to try to get specific media credentials for [their] reporters.” With the University’s financial help, Parker reported that The Rotunda was able to secure media credentials for four reporters and secure workspaces in the official media filing center.

In most cases, student media outlets on host campuses have been permitted to station a student reporter in the debate hall during the event. These outlets also often had clearance to report within the security perimeter, allowing them to cover what was happening both inside and outside of the debate hall. The Chronicle and The Rotunda both had reporters in the media filing center.

Yet, even though many of these student outlets had equitable access, they still did not have the resources or audience of major media outlets. To combat this, news sources at both Hofstra and Longwood focused on their unique perspective as student outlets instead of attempting to compete with major organizations’ coverage.

Unlike national news outlets, which are often not familiar with the universities’ local communities and the campuses themselves, student outlets could utilize staffers’ local and campus knowledge to tell unique stories about the debate experience from an insider’s perspective.

“As a campus newspaper, we realized that the larger news organizations would have the national media coverage pretty much taken care of, so we weren’t focused on covering the actual topics discussed within the debate hall,” said Parker of The Rotunda. “We were more focused on our perspective as a local newspaper. We looked at the student perspective, the faculty experience, and Longwood University’s view of how the debate [and preparations were] going.”

There was certainly plenty else going on around the campuses to cover. The Chronicle covered several student protests that took place during the debate, and Ortiz explained that his staff’s knowledge of the campus and the student body allowed them to cover these protests more quickly and thoroughly than other news organizations. Using their community insight, The Chronicle was able to follow and document and the group protesting behind CNN’s debate stage, and one of their tweets about the protest became their most retweeted posts from the debate.

Notably, The Chronicle was also able to use its campus network to break news about a potential security threat on campus prior to the debate. The Chronicle was one of the first media outlets to report that a suspicious package had been found in the vicinity of the campus library the day before the debate — a story that was only later picked up by larger regional outlets. Though the package was eventually determined to be benign, The Chronicle used its campus insight to break what could have potentially been national news.

Though Longwood University’s debate did not attract as many student protests, The Rotunda still covered student perspectives overlooked by major media outlets. Parker noted that Longwood students had split feelings about the debate, with only “part of the student body on campus… really interested in the debate” with “about […] 800 volunteers who were really interested and had a lot of opportunities through the debate.”

But, Parker noted, there was sizable opposition to hosting the debate in the first place. “A large amount of [students] were against having the debate at Longwood and were really upset about the different disruptions that took place,” she told MediaFile.

The Rotunda gave a platform to these students, who found debate preparations inconvenient and unnecessary. Student Life, the student newspaper at the Washington University in St. Louis, also reported on their University’s students’ criticisms of the debates costs and inconveniences.

Yet another advantage poached by these campuses’ student outlets were the local connections beyond campus, which contributed to reporting on how the debates affected the community before and after the candidates’ parting handshake. Parker, when interviewed by C-SPAN as part of their debate coverage, took the opportunity to discuss how the security preparations for the debate, including road closures, affected Farmville, the town Longwood calls home.

Similarly, outlets at Hofstra reported on road closures, traffic, and limited parking that made navigating campus difficult on debate day and caused many local workers to take the entire day off. The Rebel Yell at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas has also reported on how security preparation for their campus’s upcoming debate has limited campus access and decreased parking in the surrounding area.

Ultimately, the high-level access and ability to do meaningful, unique reporting on national events have made the debates a fantastic experience for student media outlets on hosting campuses. These opportunities also come at a critical time in student journalism, with many campus outlets facing struggles to find stable sources of funding and repay debt.

“We knew what [having a debate on campus] meant for our publication and our university. Everyone was completely in agreement that this had to be the best reporting, the best work that we have ever put out there,” Ortiz summarized. “It was a lot of work, it was a lot of planning, it was a lot of organization, but everyone was on board to put in the work because they knew what it meant for us and our university.”

Often, student journalists do not have the resources, staff, or access to the front lines of national news events. This year, the debates gave student outlets an unparalleled opportunity to work alongside professional journalists, cover news of global importance, give overlooked groups a voice, and representing their universities on a national stage.

“We are really lucky to have [this] experience as journalists,” Ortiz said. “[We got to be] on the same level as some of the greatest journalists in the field right now. It was pretty surreal. We are very lucky and very privileged to have had that opportunity.”

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