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How to Cover Campus Protests

Citing safety concerns, some colleges canceled events and called in police during protests amid the Israel-Hamas war, sparking free speech concerns. Here are tips for journalists to cover the evolving story.

Photo credit: James Minichello of AASA for EWA

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Student journalists at The Brown Daily Herald, Brown University’s college newspaper, weren’t used to the number of readers they amassed over the spring. Readership spiked as a student protest movement grew, largely driven by concerns over mass suffering in Gaza resulting from the Israeli-Hamas war. The war began after a Hamas terrorist attack on Israel in October 2023.

Neil Mehta, the newspaper’s editor-in-chief and a student at Brown, said readers wanted information – fast – and the on-campus paper learned to adapt to the new demands.

“Usually, we’re writing for our students and faculty,” he said. “We realized that people are coming to us for real-time updates. People are emailing us asking, ‘Hey, what’s going on 10 minutes ago, 20 minutes ago?’”

Mehta shared the student newspaper’s strategy during a panel on covering campus protests at the Education Writers Association’s 77th National Seminar. Moderated by Daarel Burnette of The Chronicle of Higher Education, the hour-long panel offered reporters strategies and tips to approach covering campus protests and what issues to drill down on this summer and fall. Other panelists included Maggie Hicks of The Chronicle of Higher Education and Michael Elsen-Rooney, a K-12 reporter at Chalkbeat New York.

This spring’s protests are complex, and understanding the students behind them and what’s driving this movement across the country is vital, Hicks said.

“It is such a complicated topic,” Hicks said. “There are so many different nuances.”

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Understand the Legal Landscape Around Free Speech on Campuses

University administrators don’t have unrestricted ability to discipline students and limit protests. Public universities, for example, are obliged to protect free speech because they are public, Burnette said.

But in practice, school administrators’ actions in response to protests have prompted alarm bells from students about infringements on free speech. For example, the University of Michigan in March proposed a policy that would limit disruptive activity on university property after an honors ceremony was disrupted by protests.

Hicks wrote about how Indiana University at Bloomington officials abruptly canceled a Palestinian artist’s exhibit, and she detailed the fallout from that cancellation and disciplinary measures taken against a faculty member. 

Understanding what was happening behind the scenes in administration offices making decisions like the one to cancel the exhibit was difficult, Hicks said. Administrators didn’t answer her emails.

She had to find other ways to understand the mood among IU staff members, such as attending a faculty meeting, where officials cited a perceived threat to security as a reason to cancel the event.

“This faculty meeting just gave such a good insight into what the university was thinking,” she said.

At K-12 schools, the right of free speech still exists, but schools also must consider the impact of protests on daily activity, said Michael Elsen-Rooney, a reporter at Chalkbeat New York.

“Schools and students do have a right to freedom of speech, but schools also have the right to discipline students if that free speech results in disruption in school,” Elsen-Rooney said. “That’s a constant line that schools are trying to weigh.”

No Group Is a Monolith

It’s important that journalists don’t paint any group of students or student protesters with a broad brush. In some coverage, Mehta said he’s seen blanket statements characterizing how Jewish students feel about on-campus protests – but not all Jewish students feel the same way about them.

“We’ve all kind of seen it in different media outlets here and there; it’s kind of like a homogenization of Jewish students … ‘Jewish students feel this way, or Jewish students feel that way,’” he said. “One thing we really are trying to do is avoid those statements. Because you know, Jewish students are not a monolith.”

The Daily Herald published a feature focused on how Jewish students felt about the campus encampment to showcase the diversity of views at Brown among Jewish students.

Reporters also learned that some protesters might be wary of journalists, accusing journalists of having a bias or coming into interviews with an agenda. Hicks said she tries to ward off those accusations by making it clear she’s done her research and that she understands what protesters want out of a demonstration.

“I’m going to engage with them in a way that they feel like they’re being listened to, and they feel like they’re being heard,” she said. “And they feel like I’m going to reflect that in my story.”

Research the History 

Journalists should try to understand the historical context of on-campus protests, too. Hicks said she looked at the history of South African apartheid and anti-apartheid movements and how those movements “continued through several academic years.”

“It’ll be really interesting to see sort of how students kind of keep up the motivation and keep up the push and what things will look like come the fall semester,” she said.

In K-12 schools, educators, administrators and other school leaders across the country have called for full and complex histories to be taught in the classroom. Reporters should hold K-12 schools accountable for that, according to Elsen-Rooney.

“We’ve heard a lot about these efforts to … create more daily education about Jewish history, about the history of this conflict, about Muslim history, Islamophobia,” he said. “How that actually takes effect and whether there are schools that are doing that really well is something that I’m interested in.”

Watch for the Fallout and Dig Deeper

Pro-Palestinian protester demands at different universities are not all the same: Some urged schools to end dual degree programs with Israeli universities; others protested commencement speakers who appear to support Israeli causes. But in many cases, protesters demanded that universities divest endowments or other investment funds from companies that could have ties to Israel.

If universities tried to adhere to those student demands, the process of financially severing ties could be complex. Helping readers understand what it would take and the breadth of investments university endowments hold is an important piece of reporting.

“I wanted to write about divestment because I think it was a term that we would just continue hearing over and over and over again,” Hicks said. Adding that she asked, “What are the companies that colleges are actually investing in? Are they actually investing in them? What are those investments like? And endowments are incredibly complicated.”

Mehta added his reporting on divestment will look at, “How much is it going to cost the university? Where is the trade off of returns versus divestment?” 

Education journalists can find the following resources from the Education Writers Association on campus protests and free speech: