Student journalists learn many skills in college, but chances are, they could have never prepared to cover the current situation in the Twin Cities—donning gas masks, dodging rubber bullets and biking miles to report the news.
When George Floyd died at the hands of the Minneapolis Police Department on Memorial Day, it sent a shock wave through Minneapolis that has reverberated around the world. Some of the Twin Cities student journalists who have consistently covered the cities have now been called upon to report on a story that reaches well beyond their college campuses.
A Journalistic Obligation
Most student newspaper summer staffs are small and some, like Macalester’s The Mac Weekly, don’t typically publish in the summertime. But Twin Cities student journalists have put in extra hours and efforts to diligently cover this historic moment.
Jasmine Snow, a reporter at the University of Minnesota’s newspaper, the Minnesota Daily, is at home in South Dakota, but it hasn’t stopped her from reporting from the start. “For first 72 hours, I got six hours of sleep and was on the phone nonstop,” she says.
As a journalist of color, Snow says covering this story has been especially taxing. “You can’t take a break from the news,” she says. “You are the news. Racial trauma in combination with journalistic burnout is very real.”
Yet, Snow feels an obligation to tell these stories by finding voices that otherwise might not be heard.
Other journalists from the Minnesota Daily have been on the streets of Minneapolis since the first protest outside of Cup Foods, the location of George Floyd’s death, on May 26. “I’m tired,” says Minnesota Daily multimedia editor Jack Rodgers. He had been working nearly nonstop to photograph the Twin Cities for four days straight. “But it doesn’t feel like work.”
The scene at the intersection of 35W and University Ave just after 6 p.m. A standoff between police and large number of student protesters occurred ending in the crowd being temporarily dispersed by rubber rounds and tear gas. pic.twitter.com/V8rKo3RNAB
— Jack Rodgers (@jackrrodgers) June 1, 2020
Rodgers was mere feet away from a student protestor hit in the eye with a rubber bullet and close enough to tear gas clouds to taste it, he says. Rodgers has since added to his photojournalist armor, which now includes a gas mask, neon vest, plastic shield and rock-climbing helmet.
Similarly, Kori Suzuki, multimedia editor for The Mac Weekly, has been out on the streets nearly every day taking photos. He witnessed a heightened level of unrest on the night of May 27, the first night he felt events starting to build.
“The scene of fires burning, police shooting tear gas into a parking lot to keep protestors from gathering…” Suzuki says. “That was the only moment I was worried I could get arrested or hurt by police,”
But he comes close to danger because, to him, the story is that meaningful. “Being able to amplify such an important story in any way I can… it feels good,” he says.
Yves De Jesus, who, under normal circumstances, is the Minnesota Daily’s data reporter, has also been following events in the Twin Cities. On May 29, he was a few feet away from a building on fire. “You could feel the heat. It was really intense,” he says. “When Jack [Rodgers] and I would hear people running or loud noises, we would immediately walk towards our bikes, just to get a head start.”
At the same scene, De Jesus says police were indiscriminately firing rubber bullets. He felt better being there with another person and with Minnesota Daily’s editor-in-chief checking in consistently.
A Learning Curve
For many of these student journalists, covering a multifaceted story, which has quickly become international, is uncharted territory. The only other protests they may have experience covering are climate strikes and women’s marches.
“I’ve never been in this situation before. You don’t learn how to cover this in [journalism] school,” De Jesus says.
There’s also the question of ethics in these situations—especially when it comes to photography. There has been a broad call for photographers to conceal protestors’ identities to protect their safety after Black Lives Matter protestors in Ferguson, Missouri, were targeted after appearing in the media.
“When you tell stories of people—especially marginalized people—you have a duty to prioritize their well-being,” Suzuki says.
Hundreds gathered outside North Central University in Minneapolis Thursday afternoon as family and friends of George Floyd held a memorial inside.
— The Mac Weekly (@themacweekly) June 5, 2020
The Mac Weekly made the choice to blur or omit photos that could identify protesters, even if that meant removing a photo because it featured a person’s tattoo.
“Everything’s completely been changed and upended this week. I’ve never been thrown into anything like this before,” Rodgers says.
And a week on the ground has taught him a lot. “Outside of being a journalist, I’ve been having tougher conversations with myself about my own identity, privilege and race,” says Rodgers, who is white. He’s also started questioning the kinds of photos he’s taking, citing the Society of Professional Journalists’ second point in its code of ethics: “Minimize harm.”
“If there’s any one person singled out in a photo, I ask their permission,” he says. “And then I’m focusing on wider crowd shots in general, where no one person can be picked out.”
The reporters from large news outlets who flocked to the Twin Cities are telling this story for a national audience, but The Mac Weekly managing editor Abe Asher says his goal is to tell the stories that big publications overlook.
“I’m trying to get deep, past that initial headline about the scale of the protests and the murder of George Floyd into these deeper, community-focused stories. We still need people to cover what you’re not going to necessarily read in the New York Times,” Asher says.
Snow is also focusing on a more local angle. “My first thought is, ‘What community does this serve?’” she says. “A big priority for me right now is making sure I’m lifting up voices of color, particularly Black voices, during this time.”
Amidst stories of looting and violence, De Jesus wrote a story highlighting clean-up efforts and volunteer-run food donation sites. “I think we could use more stories about how people are rebuilding and recovering,” he says. “As journalists we need to continue to keep the story going and the cameras rolling after the action.”
Molly Landaeta, news editor at Hamline University’s newspaper, The Oracle, says she is also trying to find areas of coverage that go beyond just the big stories. “This is such a historical event and there are so many people covering it. It’s hard to know where I can add something to the conversation that matters,” she says. “So it’s been more of, ‘What can I do that other news outlets aren’t doing yet?’ And I still haven’t quite figured out the answer to that.”
Journalism students are taught to observe objectivity in reporting—the separation of journalists’ personal opinions and their reporting. But some Twin Cities student journalists are rethinking the concept in terms of this situation.
“I don’t make any claim to be objective, even as a news reporter,” Asher says. “I think that objectivity is something that tends to get held up in journalism, but there’s no such thing as true objectivity.”
“This is a moment that demands media—especially when it’s being attacked along ideological lines—to take a stand for our communities and come out fighting for truth and justice.”
Snow sees her role as a journalist right now is to lift up voices of color. “I see journalism, especially the kind of journalism I do, as some form of activism. I definitely prioritize facts,” she says.
Landaeta has been focusing most of her energy on being an active St. Paul community member instead of pursuing journalism. “It’s interesting for me, because I care so passionately about this,” she says. “It’s a struggle between, ‘Do I sit down and write something when I could be handing out supplies to people or out protesting?’”