Student Journalists Cover Racial Issues on College Campuses

Between November 7-8, students at Syracuse University in New York reported seeing several racial slurs against black and Asian people written in bathrooms and on a bulletin board in one of the campus residence halls. 

Three days went by before the university made an announcement regarding the incident to the campus community on November 11. 

The incident and the university’s delayed response provoked the beginnings of the #NotAgainSU movement, demanding that administrators make several changes on how they label hate speech on campus and how bias-related crimes are reported. The protests included an eight-day sit-in at Syracuse’s student wellness center. 

The protests have continued as several other racist and bias-related actions have been reported on campus, including the alleged sending of the New Zealand Christchurch mosques shooter’s 74-page manifesto to students’ phones through AirDrop. Some Syracuse University professors and departments canceled classes or allowed absences following the incident due to concerns about student safety. 

As of now, at least 16 racist or bias-related incidents have been reported on and near the Syracuse University campus since November 7. Throughout the various incidents and their aftermath, one of the constants has been the coverage provided by the Daily Orange—Syracuse’s independent, student-run news outlet. 

Through detailed timelines, coverage of campus protests and comments from university officials, the Daily Orange, also commonly referred to on campus as the “DO,” has served both as an integral source of information for students and a means to hold university officials accountable. 

Racist hate crimes on college campuses have garnered increased national attention over the past few years, with campus outlets playing an integral role in documenting the facts of the events and providing a voice from students’ perspectives. 

Reporting on the recent incidents comes more than a year after the DO published recordings of a video involving members of the Theta Tau fraternity saying several racial slurs. The April 2018 incident prompted an investigation by the university, which eventually permanently expelled the chapter from Syracuse. 

Throughout the November incidents, the DO has published reporting on student protests and responses from university officials. The outlet also made a timeline of the various racial or bias-related events on their website to provide the campus community with a digestible running guide of everything that had occurred throughout the month. 

For Emma Folts, incoming news editor at the DO, the work of student journalists at Syracuse has served as a resource for students, especially following the claims from students of limited transparency provided by university officials. 

“I think it’s incredibly important just to be a public service to people especially in such a terrifying time,” Folts said in an interview with MediaFile. “To notify people when the DPS [Department of Public Safety] emails are being sent out to people, and in the additional reporting, we’re trying to speak with the students involved.” 

Folts said one of these interviews with students allowed the DO to notify the campus community about one of the incidents before it was reported by DPS. According to the DO’s hate crimes timeline, the student outlet reported early in the morning on November 16 that a racial slur was yelled at a freshman student who is Asian as he was leaving a residence hall late Friday night. An email to students from DPS Chief Bobby Maldonado did not come until Saturday afternoon, with Maldonado saying that “DPS did not have enough evidence at the time” to say the incident “was motivated by bias.” 

The DO’s early morning story included an interview with a student, as well as specific details on the incident. The outlet updated the article later that day, adding that the student told the DO he was sticking by his original statement despite the doubts expressed by DPS. 

When covering racial or bias-motivated incidents on college campuses, Folts said an important step for student journalists is to build trust with protestors and others directly impacted by the events. For Folts and other DO staff members, this meant that often times reporters were nearby silently observing protests throughout the days-long sit-in. 

“We haven’t tried to come up to them very much and invade their space at the sit-in and try to speak with them during that difficult time,” Folts said. “I think so many people feel very terrorized about what is going on on campus and the protestors are trying to address those issues, but you want to allow them the space and the distance to do that in a way that they would be comfortable with.”

When reaching out to sources for comment on race issues on college campuses, student journalists may also receive pushback. At The George Washington University in D.C. the independent student newspaper The GW Hatchet was involved in reporting on university and community responses to racist social media posts involving students. 

On September 4, the Hatchet reported that the university was in the process of investigating a Snapchat post from the then-president of GW’s chapter of Phi Sigma Sigma. The photo, which had been obtained by the Hatchet that day, shows the front of a plantation gift shop with the caption: “I wonder if they sell slaves.” 

Two months later, the publication reported on responses from university officials and students to a racist Snapchat video in which a student called Jewish individuals “pieces of sh*t.” According to the Hatchet’s reporting, university officials obtained the video two days before it was made public on Facebook. 

Hatchet Editor-in-Chief Sarah Roach said in an interview with MediaFile that in the reporting on the Phi Sigma Sigma and the anti-Semitic Snapchat incidents, some student leaders were hesitant to speak with Hatchet reporters. Roach attributed this to both the sensitive nature of the topic, as well as a series of factual errors in the Hatchet’s 2018 reporting on a racist Snapchat post featuring two members of the Alpha Phi sorority. 

“I think in the past, especially with Alpha Phi, there were errors in that reporting, and people didn’t want to circle back to the Hatchet and talk to them knowing that they might see mistakes,” Roach said. “I do think there is just a lot of hesitation to talk to the Hatchet and I think that there always has been.” 

The factual errors made in the Alpha Phi reporting were acknowledged in several corrections posted on the Hatchet’s website. For example, in an article on a Student Association Senate resolution’s call for the removal of Alpha Phi from the university, the Hatchet incorrectly reported the main purpose of the resolution and misattributed some public comments made during a Senate meeting. 

Based on feedback received from university administrators and student leaders following reporting on the Alpha Phi incident, Roach said the Hatchet has adopted several measures to improve its reporting, such as notifying student leaders before a town hall event that Hatchet reporters will be there and only reaching out to student organizations for comment after they have already made a public statement about the issue. 

Beyond the ethical questions surrounding reporting on race-related issues on college campuses, student journalists are also just that—students. 

Like Folts, student reporters often have to work to objectively report on issues that may directly affect them or people they know on campus. While not a racial minority, Folts said the bias-related incidents on campus contributed to widespread concerns for the safety of students. 

“I myself, as a white woman, it’s something that I never have to experience in my life, you know, being called racial slurs, you know seeing swastikas is horrifying and terrible, but it is not a direct threat to my existence and my identity,” Folts said. “But I still do feel the fear on this campus, I experienced it myself and I was afraid that there could be the potential for violence on this campus.” 

This fear and emotional toll experienced by student reporters and the larger campus communities are not just unique to Syracuse and GW. Last month, CNN reported that during the week of November 17-23 alone, there had been at least five racist or anti-Semitic incidents reported on college campuses across the country. 

On November 20, an extension cord tied as a noose was found in the common area of a residence hall at Auburn University. The university’s Department of Public Safety & Security announced on social media that day that the noose was “quickly removed” and that officials “condemn this action as antithetical to the values of the Auburn Family.” 

That same day, Iowa State University officials denounced a swastika found etched into a door of a dorm community room, as well as racist stickers and posters found on light poles and bus stop signs throughout campus. The incidents came a month after Iowa State students gathered at the university president’s office to protest earlier racist incidents, including a picture of the student government adviser in blackface and neo-Nazi writings on campus. 

Despite the sensitive nature of these stories and the challenges associated with reporting on them, Roach said she believes it is essential for campus outlets to reflect the voices of students and help propel the changes they hope to see. 

“I think these stories are really representative of the campus climate, especially the reaction that it generates from students,” Roach said. “The stories usually mention how this speaks to a larger issue of racism on campus, or this speaks to a larger issue of anti-Semitism on campus, and so taking those specific incidents and actually making it known to the student body that this is an issue, taking those reactions from students, I think that’s super important.” 

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