Every journalist covering the pandemic is covering something that affects them, but it’s much more directly so when you’re a college journalist reporting on outbreaks happening among your friends and classmates.
The pandemic can decide the future of your own schooling — and perhaps, your housing — and writing for your publication means balancing being a journalist and being a student on the same campus.
“I’m a senior. I didn’t know if I would be back in Nashville this fall. But then, also as a journalist, and seeing, ‘OK, what’s the most important information for all the incoming freshmen out there, international students, transfers?’ It’s like, ‘Where will people be eating and sleeping? And, will there be classes in person?'”
Being fellow students also gives The Hustler staff insider info, in the form of direct sources or being eyewitnesses themselves depending on the story. When a gathering of 50 to 200 people happened on campus, Muir says, their coverage came so quickly and was so in-depth because one of their writers was passing by and saw it happening.
That article got lots of hits, and Muir says that’s become part of the new normal too. The outlet’s analytics show significantly higher clicks and engagement on their articles compared to this time last year.
COVID coverage in every section — yes, even Lifestyle
Another unique aspect of college coverage of a global pandemic is the mix of tones from the same publication.
While The Hustler was putting out hard hitting coverage of that large gathering of students being investigated by the university, it was also offering pieces like “Bored in Blakemore: a beginner’s guide to surviving isolation.” It recommends PowerPoint parties and virtual picnics in a dorm set aside for students quarantining for up to 24 days.
The pandemic has a place in all six sections — News, Life, Opinion, Sports, Voices, Multimedia — but one section, in particular, was worried heading into fall.
“Not even a month ago, I think there was still some question as to whether football was going to be happening or not, so that had the whole entire sports team really thinking about like, ‘Well, do we cover the Titans then?’ and like, ‘How do we continue covering football and covering sports that Vanderbilt students would be watching or wanting to watch?'” Muir says. “It’s like, wow, we’re an SEC school, and we don’t know if there’s going to be a football season.”
Getting information at a private university
Vanderbilt is a private institution, so it’s not required to disclose much information generally, and especially so in a pandemic when there’s no federal or state requirement to do so.
But, Muir says, the university has been forthcoming in all the requests from its student paper — even setting up Q&A’s with Dr. William Schaffner, a professor of preventive medicine and a source for news outlets near and far.
The Hustler has also been utilizing the university’s COVID-19 dashboard, which is updated weekly.
“Just having access to VUMC has been a great resource, and I know we’ve been lucky enough to sit down for a couple of Q&A’s with Dr. William Schaffner, who’s been a great resource on national news recently, but I think that because campus policies have been changing, that’s really taking up a lot of our time coverage wise,” Muir says.
VUMC has also been an influential guide to Nashville as it reopens. Vanderbilt is testing students for the coronavirus weekly, mandating longer quarantines and offering many more virtual learning options.
“Obviously, Nashville has an actual economy. Restaurants need to open, and Broadway relies on bars and the concert venues and all that,” Muir says. “So, I kind of understand why Vanderbilt has a much bigger license to keep it much stricter for a lot longer just because if you’re living on campus, you have the meal plan. You have food. Students are going to class, and all of the basics are kind of covered.”
Plans for the future
The pandemic has changed campus life and campus coverage. Topics Muir says the publication once avoided for being too large in scope for a student-run outlet, like racial inequality and climate change, are now seen in The Hustler’s coverage of the Abolish Greek Life movement and DivestVU.
But, at the end of the day, what are the longterm effects of covering a global pandemic while in college to these journalists as individuals? For Avery Muir, it’s brought an unexpected sense of freedom.
“I’m a lot more open to exploring a lot of different career paths and not having a set plan because it’s like, who knows where we’ll be a year from now or six months from now? It’s just kind of impossible to tell,” Muir says. “So, I can plan for multiple career paths and just kind of see where the wind takes me.”