Campus Journalism A Tough Beat In The COVID-19 Era
The student journalists at Williams College in northwest Massachusetts are continuing to provide coverage of campus life through the turmoil of 2020.
Last semester, senior Sam Wolf was the editor-in-chief of the Williams Record, the student publication that covers the liberal arts college of around 2,000 undergraduates in Northern Berkshire County.
“The first two months of last semester, we were an entirely normal paper," Wolf told WAMC. "Normal stories being covered, normal routine. And then in mid-March, it was just thrust into complete chaos, where all of our reporters went home all in the same week.”
The pandemic transformed the Record. Wolf, now a managing editor, says working through panic, distance and a constant torrent of often conflicting news resulted in an entirely new editing structure.
“March, April were kind of like feeling around in the dark until we came up with a sort of a routine that worked for us,” he said.
The crisis also led to the Record publishing over the summer for the first time in its history. Sophomore Annie Lu is the Record’s news editor.
“So during that time, the news team also covered the college’s plans about how to change the academic calendar, how to change the course requirements – since now students are only required to take three classes at a time – and then in July, the very important decision of whether to open campus. We were also one of the first to report on that,” she told WAMC.
Now, with around three quarters of the student body back on campus and adapting to life in the COVID era, the Record is slowly returning to something like normal.
“But we still don’t have a print paper, and it’s still – the types of reporting that we’re doing are fundamentally different because COVID overshadows so much of what we’re trying to cover,” said Wolf.
Editor in Chief Jeongyoon Han described the feeling as a weird mix of comfort and uncharted territory.
“Everything has been reoriented," she told WAMC. "Spaces have been changed. The way in which we get meals or hang out with friends or take classes have all shifted to make accommodations and to make sense of this pandemic.”
Every student, staff and faculty member is being tested twice a week for COVID, and there are strict limits on where students can travel off campus. As schools across the country open their campuses to students only to see outbreaks and abrupt closures, it’s presented a very clear line of coverage to the staff of the Record:
“How or whether or not students have been complying with the public health guidelines that the college has outlined,” said Lu.
The Record broke a story in late September that highlighted not just students violating those guidelines, but a spotty response from the Williams administration.
“It was a story about large gatherings of students who were violating campus rules who were assembling in really large parties. Our maximum party size that’s allowed is only 10, and in some cases, there were 50, 60, 70, 80 students, all of whom didn’t have masks," said Wolf. “It was the sort of thing where people knew about it but they were very hesitant to say anything about it. It was well established, but nobody was really willing to go on the record about it.”
“For students that had really wanted to come back to campus knowing that these gatherings were putting us at risk both in terms of health and our ability to stay, since campus could be closed at any moment if the public health situation warranted it, we knew it was important news and wanted our story to reflect that," said Lu. “At the same time, we also wanted to draw attention to the sort of the disparities of the college’s responses to different violations. It’s mentioned in the article that students were removed in the first weeks since their arrival due to initial quarantine violations that received some backlash back then – there was a student petition that circulated – in contrast to the sorts of gatherings that we’re hearing about now, and that campus safety and security has reported on to the Record in their weekly report. There hasn’t been quite as much action or definitive disciplinary action, at least, taken by the administration.”
The Record’s article draws attention to a September gathering of as many as 120 students, reportedly mostly first years, that resulted in no disciplinary action taken or students removed from campus.
“The burden has been placed on student leaders to have to encourage their peers to not break rules in this way, but I feel like the college administration is not in touch in terms with what is happening on campus in terms of breaking rules, and that they have not done enough to step in and make the circumstances such that students won’t break rules,” said Han.
Dean of Students Marlene Sandstrom told WAMC in a statement that Williams has “already shown our willingness to transition students to remote study if necessary,” and that “we set behavioral expectations and then ask students to live up to them.”
The strain of the situation has placed student journalists in the position of whistleblowing on their peers, which Lu says is uncomfortable.
“I don’t want to stand on my high horse and tell everyone, ‘Hey, everyone has to comply with the rules perfectly,’" said Lu. "Because I think that’s an unrealistic expectation for a lot of 18- to 21-year-olds.”