WEBINAR: SPLC and PEN America talk to leading college journalists about how COVID-19 has changed their newsrooms

Student journalists discussed their transition to remote reporting via Zoom in a virtual roundtable with SPLC and PEN America on Friday, April 24

On April 24, the Student Press Law Center and PEN America’s Campus Free Speech Program hosted an online forum with college journalists who discussed the challenges they are facing because of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The forum was moderated by Nicholas “Niko” Perez, program coordinator for campus free speech at PEN America. It also featured Mike Hiestand, SPLC senior legal counsel and Nora Benavidez, director of PEN America’s U.S. Free Expression Programs.

The student participants:

  • Sophie Austin, editor-in-chief at The Eagle, American University
  • Erin Doherty, lead researcher at the Free Speech Project, Georgetown University
  • Jake Goldstein-Street, news editor at The UW Daily, University of Washington
  • Christina Morales, editor-in-chief at The Independent Florida Alligator, University of Florida
  • Isaiah Poritz, executive editor at The Emory Wheel, Emory University
  • Aidan Ryan, president at The Harvard Crimson, Harvard University
  • Karen Xia, editor-in-chief at Columbia Daily Spectator, Columbia University
  • Josh Yuen, editor-in-chief at The Daily Californian, UC Berkeley

The legal overview:

Hiestand opened up the conversation by talking about trends coming through SPLC’s legal hotline, and legal and practical issues that have arisen for student journalists reporting during the pandemic. Hiestand said student media seems to be handling the change to remote working well because many newsrooms are “tech savvy.” He said the reporting from student news organizations has been impressive. They are providing valuable information, especially in news deserts where other print media news organizations do not exist.

Due to COVID-19, Hiestand said more than two-thirds of states have ordered state of emergency modifications to their Freedom of Information Act laws. Some states have changed the amount of time records holders have to respond to FOIA requests. Most states have also waived in-person meeting requirements, and are requiring public meetings be accessible via video conferencing platforms instead. 

In March 2020, the Department of Education released new Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act guidelines that give schools more leeway to disclose details about student health information. He gave the example that if a student living in a dorm tested positive for COVID-19, the school could inform that students’ roommate. FERPA is a federal law intended to protect student privacy by preventing schools from disclosing personally identifiable information in a student’s education records. But many schools misapply FERPA and use it to stonewall journalists and the general public. Hiestand said the new guidelines are a step toward much needed transparency from schools. The guidelines don’t instruct schools to inform the media or the general public, but journalists still benefit from being able to obtain basic information.

Q: What challenges has your team encountered while reporting on COVID-19?

Isaiah Poritz, executive editor at the Emory Wheel at Emory University in Atlanta and Sophie Austin, editor-in-chief at the Eagle at American University in Washington, D.C. said their newsrooms were in the middle of transitioning their leadership positions for the new academic year when their universities announced they would be closing for the semester. 

Poritz said the most difficult part of remote working has been coordinating coverage while editors and writers are spread across the country. He said that his newsroom is now using video conferencing and messaging platforms like Zoom and Slack to stay connected. 

Austin said the Eagle staff wanted to create a website dedicated to COVID-19 coverage. When they submitted a purchase request for the domain, the university denied it. The former editor-in-chief ended up personally paying $228.00 out-of-pocket for the website.

The Eagle also published a column explaining how their staff is covering the virus remotely. The column addressed how student journalists are experiencing the same challenges as other students, including being abruptly sent home and losing jobs and internships, but are still committed to report the news to their communities. 

Q: How have you and your staff navigated the shift of campuses online? What implications has this had for your publications?

Karen Xia, editor-in-chief at the Columbia Daily Spectator at Columbia University, said they cut print production of the paper for the rest of the semester, which has given their staff more time to expand their web presence. Their newsroom development team is designing a new layout for articles online. They are using graphics and data to visualize how the virus has affected their campus and New York City at large. 

Suspending the print edition cost Spectator their main revenue stream: print advertising. The loss of revenue has damaged their ability to fund their work-study program. Spectator is independent from the university and relies on print advertising revenue to fund their operations, including paying a portion of work-study students’ financial aid package. 

Aidan Ryan, president at The Harvard Crimson, said they had to cut print production too. This meant they had to shut down their in-house printing services. Photo and print-design staffers are struggling because their normal work has been upended by the halt of print production and stay-at-home orders. Ryan said they are trying to think creatively about different ways those staff members can produce content from their homes. Crimson staff members are updating their style guides, print designers are working on illustrations and multimedia members are publishing photo essays of their hometowns.

“[We] have had to focus on bringing our coverage online only,” Ryan said. “We have a website, we have an online presence but we’ve thought for years in this print-first mindset. We’ve been taking a hard look at our digital strategy and making sure that we are presenting an online platform, online coverage that can reach as many readers as possible.

Q: How has your team managed communications with university staff? How have universities supported you, and what else can they do to help?

Christina Morales, editor-in-chief at the Independent Florida Alligator at University of Florida in Gainesville, said section leaders are in charge of maintaining contact with university and hospital spokespeople as well as keeping in contact with the county health officer. That way they can ask questions for multiple stories and get faster responses. Morales said they’ve called out the university in their coverage for not being transparent — they showed archives of inconsistent messages on the university website.

“Flaws in the communication process are really important to tell readers about because I don’t think they are seeing it on their end,” Morales said.

The staff has run into issues with their public records requests from the university. According to Morales, they’ve been receiving “partial records” from administrators and being told to file new requests for the documents they did not receive. 

Jake Goldstein-Street, news editor at the UW Daily at University of Washington in Seattle, said his reporters are being routed through university PR. Spokespeople sometimes aren’t able to respond because of the high volume of interview or comment requests they are getting. 

Hiestand noted that while the SPLC has seen direct instances of COVID-19 related censorship at the high school level, college administrators are more likely to indirectly censor student media. Many students are having difficulty getting in touch with university administrators, some have not heard from certain administrators at all.

Q: How have you reported on COVID-19 related issues of hate and xenophobia on campus? What advice would you have for other papers?

Josh Yuen, editor-in-chief at the Daily Californian at University of California at Berkeley, talked about an incident where their university health center posted a photo with a caption that included that “xenophobia is a normal reaction” to the virus. The health center took the post down after numerous complaints. Yuen said it was the Daily Californian’s responsibility to hold the university accountable for their comments. They published an editorial condemning the post.

“We’ve been fortunate that we haven’t had any big incidents when it comes to physical or emotional abuse beyond that,” Yuen said. “This was definitely a big incident that we didn’t see coming. At the same time, this is an issue that still lingers and it’s a very real issue that I think a lot of folks are taking into account in their coverage.”

Moving forward, Yuen said the reality is that misconceptions and stereotypes are leading to xenophobia and racism around the world. The Daily Californian is using its voice to bring unity to their community rather than marginalizing people. 

Daily Cal is working to “cover things from a neutral perspective and also know when to utilize their voice for messages of hope and getting through this together,” Yuen said.


During an open question and answer session, participants discussed the longer term impact the pandemic will have on print newspapers. Hiestand believes more news organizations will expand their online/digital presence and completely transition away from print. Yuen said the Daily Californian is considering whether or not they should continue print production four times a week when they return to school.

While all else is uncertain, these students are still committed to bringing in-depth coverage to their communities.