Pandemic Provides Unique Learning Experience for Journalism Students

Desks, computers and common areas in the Daily Wildcat newsroom have gone largely untouched since early March. Staff for the university's student-run newspaper have covered COVID-19 and other stories from home since the pandemic began.

Desks, computers and common areas in the Daily Wildcat newsroom have gone largely untouched since early March. Staff for the university's student-run newspaper have covered COVID-19 and other stories from home since the pandemic began.

(Photo courtesy of Brett Fera)

Sam Burdette

Sam Burdette

Sam Burdette won't soon forget the day in early March that the 2020 Tucson Festival of Books was canceled.

Festival organizers announced the decision on March 9 amid concerns about the novel coronavirus, soon after Pima County reported its first case.

As the copy chief for the Daily Wildcat, the University of Arizona's 121-year-old student-run news outlet, Burdette, along with several other editors, had spent the preceding weeks polishing several stories for a 20-page special festival guide. She made her final edits from Whiteriver in eastern Arizona, where she was spending spring break on a volunteer trip.

Wildcat staff halted printing the festival guide just hours before it was to be sent to press. The festival cancellation also nullified many of the stories planned for the Wildcat's upcoming regular arts and life section.

Burdette learned about the book festival in a text from a fellow editor while on a lunch break from volunteering.

"Now, all of a sudden, all of that work was gone, and we had to figure out how to cover this new experience while we're all on spring break," she said.

The COVID-19 pandemic upended the semester in some way for nearly every UArizona student. But it also presented a once-in-a-career opportunity for student journalists, such as Burdette, who rose to the occasion to cover it with guidance from UArizona journalism faculty and staff.

Helping Readers 'Know the Facts'

Having so much content derailed by the festival's cancellation was a "galvanizing" experience for the Wildcat's editors, who are all UArizona students, said Brett Fera, director of Arizona Student Media and a staff adviser to the newsroom.

The Wildcat's editorial board in a Zoom call during one of the its last meetings of the spring semester.

The Wildcat's editorial board in a Zoom call during one of the its last meetings of the spring semester.

(Photo courtesy of Brett Fera)

After taking stock of their personal situations and figuring out how to forge ahead mostly from home, staffers began to cover the ways the pandemic would shape life for UArizona students. Since March, about 40 staffers have produced 80 to 90 stories on COVID-19.

This involved reimaging the way the news would be delivered on a nearly empty campus. The Wildcat, which normally prints weekly but publishes stories online every day, switched to sending weekly e-newsletters on Wednesdays to anyone who signed up to receive them.

But staffers worked remotely to assemble one printed issue – the paper's 40-page Commencement and Year in Review edition, which was mailed to nearly 11,000 graduates.

"For a student group to continue to do that amid these challenges, it was impressive to me, even though I'm pretty biased," Fera said of the staff adapting to the situation.

Amit Syal, the Wildcat's assistant news editor and health and science reporter, led the paper's coronavirus coverage from his home in Phoenix, leaning on his science background to break down the science of the virus for readers. Syal, a physiology major, will enter his senior year in the fall and plans to attend medical school after graduating.

Syal said he's happy that he can use his understanding of science to inform the Wildcat's audience about a very science-heavy news event.

"I always want to make sure that people my age always know the facts. I sometimes feel like when things are hard to comprehend, people might not always want to learn it," he said. "I always try my best to make sure that the facts are out there, and people have a way to read them and learn."

Faculty Rely on Technology, Creativity

In the School of Journalism in the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences, faculty had to get creative teaching students how to use remote-working techniques to do a job rooted in witnessing stories as they unfold.

It was as if faculty had to "flip a switch" and adapt their teaching styles, said Michael McKisson, the school's associate director, who teaches new journalistic techniques involving drones, virtual reality and 360-degree video. Finding the technology to report remotely is the easy part, McKisson said; phones and video conferencing software are accessible to many. But doing in-person interviews with sources has clear advantages.

"A large portion of our communication is nonverbal, and so if you're there in front of the person, you can catch those cues," he said.

Still, faculty encouraged students to do what they could over Skype and Zoom. The smartphones that most students had in their pockets took the place of DSLR cameras for multimedia projects, McKisson said.

This all made for a good lesson on adaptability as a journalist, he added, which has been a theme for the industry since the internet changed the media landscape over the last 20 years.

"This is just one more change," McKisson said. "You don't stop being a journalist because all of a sudden you can't be there – you just have to adapt."

The journalism school does not oversee the Daily Wildcat but produces its own online publication, El Inde, as a capstone course taught by assistant professor of practice Ruxandra Guidi. El Inde's student reporters cover issues and communities in Southern Arizona, including the towns of Sonoita and Patagonia.

Guidi spent the beginning of the semester encouraging students to spend time in the community, get to know the people they were covering and witness the stories they would tell, rather than having sources recount experiences. The pandemic, of course, turned that approach on its head.

In addition to teaching students ways to report remotely, Guidi also allowed students to write essays that personally reflected on the pandemic – a completely new form of storytelling for many students who had spent years focused on newswriting.

"That alone was hard. It demanded a kind of shift in thinking and seeing things," she said.

Aiya Cancio

Aiya Cancio

An essay by Aiya Cancio, who graduated in May with her bachelor's degree in journalism, recounted her family's struggles adjusting to a new, isolated normal.

Cancio's course schedule in the spring included feature writing and reporting public affairs – two courses that typically involve significant time reporting in the field or from civic meetings.

Now that she's graduated, Cancio's eyeing a career as a teacher rather than a journalist. But she said her takeaways from her last two months in college translate well to any career that involves interacting with people.

"We're in a time when none of us really know what can happen next. It's teaching us patience, it's teaching us empathy, it's teaching us compassion," she said. "I'm realizing that listening matters, and it's more about the human connection."

'One of the worst years' makes for 'probably the best experience'

The Wildcat newsroom, located on the third floor of the University Services Building on the west edge of campus, serves as a sort of "time capsule," Fera said, for when the pandemic halted normal university life. Desks, computers and common areas have gone largely untouched since early March. Proofing pages from the abandoned Festival of Books guide still hang on a wall.

Syal has reimagined the paper's science and health coverage, re-establishing a new desk for those areas. As the desk's editor, he's also brought on more reporters to cover those topics.

Burdette, a journalism major who is the Wildcat's editor-in-chief for the summer, will carry that title into the fall. She's also a summer intern for Tucson Local Media, writing for the company's papers in communities around Tucson, including the Tucson Weekly.

In many ways, she said, 2020 has proven to be "one of the worst years" in recent memory, thanks largely to the pandemic. But learning how to report the news even as the news itself affected the reporting process will likely prove to be a valuable lesson, she said.

"It's been a crazy time of having to just figure out how to function," Burdette said. "But that's, I think, probably the best experience that you could ever ask for as a student journalist."