Interview by Rei Wolfsohn, Storytelling Intern at the Student Press Law Center. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Student journalists are instrumental in telling important — and often untold — stories for their communities. Each week, SPLC highlights examples of bold journalism done by high school and collegiate student journalists for our series, Behind the Story.
This week, SPLC spoke with sophomore Sarah Mattalian and senior Abigail Turner from American University. Mattalian, who works as the managing editor of news for The Eagle, and Turner, who works as the investigative reporter for The Ealge, spoke with us, about their story, “As union members strike, frustrations with contract and wage increases causes tension with University.”
Check out past Q&As here.
RW: What were some challenges you faced while reporting on this story?
SM: Keeping up with all the information was a little bit difficult in terms of what we were getting from the union and the information we were getting from the university. Being able to condense that, especially the financial aspect, into terms that our readers could understand so that they could know why it was important to their community.
RW: What are pieces of work that popped up when reporting that you didn’t expect?
AT: We knew going in that there were a lot of emotions, but we were more focused on the bargaining. One of the pieces that came out was how heavily invested these staff members are in their students and how, from their stories, it seems that the compensation, the salary, they were getting from the university made it hard for them to provide the students with adequate services.
RW: What’s something you learned while working on this story?
SM: [How to put together] a cohesive narrative and piece of news with so many people on the ground and so many different bylines and how to fit a lot of information into one piece to not only convey the hard facts and data we were reporting on, but also capture the emotions of who it was impacting as well.
RW: What advice would you give other student journalists working on an important story like yours?
AT: Not being afraid of the university. I think there’s a balance between them protecting the image of the university and making sure student journalists can get the information they need to accurately portray the story. So, I think my biggest advice is to use the university as a resource. Even if they seem like they’re just not gonna give the information, you just push them for it.
RW: Why is it so important to tell stories about strikes?
SM: I’ve never seen anything of that magnitude, especially as freshmen were moving in. Of course, I think it was important to capture the reactions of the community at that time, but also reporting on this is a way of holding the administration accountable. If we weren’t reporting on this, what if the same thing happens a decade from now and there’s no evidence that this has happened before? Overall I do think it connects back to the importance of community, holding institutions accountable, and being able to provide a voice for those who are being impacted the most by what’s going on.
RW: Did you have any pushback from the newspaper staff, community or school while you were working on this story?
SM: The administration was definitely very hard to get information out of, throughout the entire process. Even by the end we felt like we hadn’t gotten anything.
AT: Yeah, the community itself was very receptive of our coverage. It wasn’t that the university was blatantly pushing back, but it was the withholding of information that was their tactic.
RW: Do you have anything else to add about your story or about student journalism in general?
SM: The most important thing that I keep in mind, and I’m sure that other people keep in mind as well, is just that connection to the community and listening to what’s going on and how we can give a voice to students and to staff because, especially at a private institution, it’s difficult. There’s some censorship and there’s not always ways to hold the administration accountable. So I think a big part of being a student journalist is knowing who you are representing by being campus media and the potential that your paper has to create change on campus through reporting.
AT: These are our jobs, but these are these people’s lives. The amount of gratitude that a lot of the union showed to the publication was very welcoming. Just being able to have a platform in which we were able to cover what they’ve been experiencing for years and years and years is just super important.
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