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Meet the student journalists bringing college campus protests to the world

Meet the student journalists bringing college campus protests to the world

All eyes are on America’s college students.

Over the past two weeks, a new wave of activism has unfolded at college campuses across the country — with students gathering in marches, demonstrations, and tent encampments to protest the ongoing Israel-Hamas war.

The largely peaceful, pro-Palestine demonstrations have been upstaged by sometimes violent counter-protests, police force, and brought America’s college students to the forefront of the international issue.

But it can be difficult to know exactly what’s been going at these universities with countless media outlets, social media posts, and other speculation mucking up the truth.

And that’s where student journalists — who’ve been boots-on-the-ground covering the happenings on their respective campuses — have played a crucial role in keeping the world at-large abreast of how the college protests have played out.

In Southern California, demonstrations at UCLA and USC came to a head last week.

At UCLA, a largely peaceful group of pro-Palestine demonstrators in a tent encampment in Dickson Plaza were violently attacked by a group of counter-protestors in the late hours of the night on Tuesday, April 30, into the next morning.

  • Protestors gather outside the Pro-Palestinian encampment on the campus of...

    Protestors gather outside the Pro-Palestinian encampment on the campus of UCLA in Los Angeles on Wednesday, May 1, 2024. (Photo by Keith Birmingham, Pasadena Star-News/ SCNG)

  • Hundreds of students outside the Palestine Solidarity Encampment on the...

    Hundreds of students outside the Palestine Solidarity Encampment on the campus of UCLA in Los Angeles on Wednesday May 1, 2024. (Photo by Keith Birmingham, Pasadena Star-News/ SCNG)

  • The man with a sign that says free Gazza inside...

    The man with a sign that says free Gazza inside the Palestine Solidarity Encampment on the campus of UCLA in Los Angeles on Wednesday May 1, 2024. (Photo by Keith Birmingham, Pasadena Star-News/ SCNG)

  • Palestine Solidarity Encampment on the campus of UCLA in Los...

    Palestine Solidarity Encampment on the campus of UCLA in Los Angeles on Wednesday May 1, 2024. (Photo by Keith Birmingham, Pasadena Star-News/ SCNG)

  • Palestine Solidarity Encampment on the campus of UCLA in Los...

    Palestine Solidarity Encampment on the campus of UCLA in Los Angeles on Wednesday May 1, 2024. (Photo by Keith Birmingham, Pasadena Star-News/ SCNG)

  • A man with a flag from the state of Israel...

    A man with a flag from the state of Israel waves in a crowd outside of the Palestine Solidarity Encampment on the campus of UCLA in Los Angeles on Wednesday May 1, 2024. (Photo by Keith Birmingham, Pasadena Star-News/ SCNG)

  • Los Angeles, CA – May 01: Hundreds of students outside...

    Los Angeles, CA – May 01: Hundreds of students outside the Palestine Solidarity Encampment on the campus of UCLA in Los Angeles on Wednesday May 1, 2024. .. (Photo by Keith Birmingham/MediaNews Group/Pasadena Star-News via Getty Images)

  • Protesters reinforce their pro-Palestinian encampment at UCLA on Wednesday morning,...

    Protesters reinforce their pro-Palestinian encampment at UCLA on Wednesday morning, May 1, 2024 in Westwood. (Photo by Sarah Reingewirtz, Los Angeles Daily News/SCNG)

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The violence went on without intervention from UCLA’s campus security and law enforcement, who were on scene, for several hours. The university has since promised to investigate the delayed police response.

Four student journalists for UCLA’s student-run newspaper, the Daily Bruin — whose reporting has been critical in getting information about the encampment and university’s response — were assaulted by the counter-protestors. Some were sprayed with chemical irritants, while others were physically beaten, according to the newspaper.

The encampment at UCLA was dismantled at around 2:45 a.m. Thursday, when scores of law enforcement officers from three different agencies, clad in riot gear, encircled, then took control of, the encampment and arrested more than 200 demonstrators.

Staff members of the Columbia Daily Spectator, the college newspaper, work into the night as police cleared out demonstrators from Columbia University's campus, late Tuesday, April 30, 2024, in New York. Left to right; Isabella Ramirez, editor in chief; Esha Karam, managing editor; Yvin Shin, head copy editor; Emily Forgash, deputy news editor; and Shea Vance, university news editor. (AP Photo/Jake Offenhartz)
Staff members of the Columbia Daily Spectator, the college newspaper, work into the night as police cleared out demonstrators from Columbia University’s campus, late Tuesday, April 30, 2024, in New York. Left to right; Isabella Ramirez, editor in chief; Esha Karam, managing editor; Yvin Shin, head copy editor; Emily Forgash, deputy news editor; and Shea Vance, university news editor. (AP Photo/Jake Offenhartz)

USC’s campus, meanwhile, was also home to a pro-Palestine encampment — until 93 protestors were arrested on suspicion of trespassing on April 24.

“As student journalists, we are often dismissed in favor of mainstream media to the detriment of our safety and coverage,” Anna Dai-Liu, a Daily Bruin reporter, said Thursday on social media. “I hope that despite all the violence that has happened, it has been made clear that student journalists – here at UCLA, at Columbia and beyond – have mettle.”

The violence against the student journalists  — and strong law enforcement response to the protests generally — stirred strong reactions from elected, university, and journalism leaders across the board.

“These students play a critical role in ensuring that communities remain informed with critical and accurate reporting during even the most intense moments of protest and conflict on their campuses,” the L.A. chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists said in a Friday statement.

“Ensuring their ability to safely cover these events is not merely a responsibility of academic institutions but also a fundamental protection under the First Amendment,” the statement continued.

For Tamara Almoayed, a USC sophomore majoring in journalism, the last few weeks on campus have been a trial by fire.

She had only written about six or seven stories since joining the team with Annenberg Media, the college’s student-led multimedia news platform, before protestors set up their encampment on campus.

Almoayed, a Muslim international student from Bahrain, initially wanted to separate herself from the pro-Palestinian encampment that had begun to grow in Alumni Park.

So, she began to work on a story about graduation instead.

But on April 24, she said, all that changed.

As Almoayed walked around campus, what she saw differed from what was being reported in the mainstream media.

“I don’t feel like this is being represented fairly in the media,” Almoayed said. “So, I asked my editor: ‘Would you mind if I jump on this story?”

What she saw at the encampment, Almoayed said, was a well orchestrated, thoughtful protest — complete with meditation sessions, yoga, even kite-making.

  • Tamara Almoayed, a USC sophomore and reporting with USC Annenberg...

    Tamara Almoayed, a USC sophomore and reporting with USC Annenberg Media. (Photo courtesy Tamara Almoayed/Annenberg Media).

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What the media were reporting, she said, was hostility, violence and tension.

One news outlet she watched interviewed only counter protesters who actively sought out press to talk to, according to Almoayed. That network never bothered to speak to the protesters themselves, she said.

That’s when Almoayed knew she had to get involved.

And as she recorded a live show for Annenberg Radio News on scene on April 24, things went from calm to chaos within a few hours.

At 5 p.m., she said, she described to listeners what was happening in Alumni Park.

“It seemed relaxed,” Almoayed said. “There had been one scuffle with (USC) Public Safety officers.”So the crew stopped recording.

Sometime later, she and her crew noticed a large public safety vehicle come through campus from which officers gave their first dispersal notice: Campers had to leave within 10 minutes or they would be charged with criminal trespassing.

Almoayed immediately went back on air as the young journalists “tried to figure everything out.”

  • More than 1,500 workers at Keck Hospital of USC, USC...

    More than 1,500 workers at Keck Hospital of USC, USC Norris Comprehensive Cancer Center, several university clinics and a university call center have voted to ratify a labor contract that includes hefty wage hikes for some employees. USC workers are seen here protesting proposed changes to their contracts in February 2020. (Photo courtesy of National Union of Healthcare Workers)

  • UCLA students set up a Palestinian solidarity camp at their...

    UCLA students set up a Palestinian solidarity camp at their Westwood campus on Thursday, April 25, 2024. The encampment comes one day after a protest on their cross-town rival USC. (Photo by Sarah Reingewirtz, Los Angeles Daily News/SCNG)

  • University of Southern California protesters fight with University Public Safety...

    University of Southern California protesters fight with University Public Safety officers as they try to remove tents at the campus’ Alumni Park during a pro-Palestinians occupation on Wednesday, April 24, 2024 in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Richard Vogel)

  • University of Southern California protesters carry a tent around Alumni...

    University of Southern California protesters carry a tent around Alumni Park on the University of Southern California to keep security from removing it during a pro-Palestinian occupation on Wednesday, April 24, 2024, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Richard Vogel)

  • A USC public safety officer scuffles with pro-Palestine supporters as...

    A USC public safety officer scuffles with pro-Palestine supporters as officers attempt to take down an encampment in support of Gaza at the University of Southern California on April 24, 2024 in Los Angeles, California. Pro-Palestinian encampments have sprung up at college campuses around the country recently. (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)

  • USC public safety officers detain a pro-Palestine demonstrator during clashes...

    USC public safety officers detain a pro-Palestine demonstrator during clashes after officers attempted to take down an encampment in support of Gaza at the University of Southern California on April 24, 2024 in Los Angeles, California. Pro-Palestinian encampments have sprung up at college campuses around the country recently. (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)

  • A University of Southern California protester, right, confronts a University...

    A University of Southern California protester, right, confronts a University Public Safety officer at the campus’ Alumni Park during a pro-Palestinian occupation on Wednesday, April 24, 2024, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Richard Vogel)

  • University of Southern California protesters carry a tents around Alumni...

    University of Southern California protesters carry a tents around Alumni Park on the campus of the University of Southern California to keep security from removing them during a pro-Palestinian occupation on Wednesday, April 24, 2024 in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Richard Vogel)

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Students knowing they would be arrested formed a circle, she said. Then Los Angeles Police Department officers arrived.

“There were a lot of LAPD,” Almoayed said, adding the police came “in masses.”

And, that’s when things got crazy, she said.

“It wasn’t really clear what the police wanted us to do,” Almoayed said.

A journalism professor came to their aid, said Almoayed, and informed police of their rights to stay at the scene and report.

It was only then that LAPD cleared a spot for the young news reporters.

One by one, students stood up, put their hands behind their backs and waited to be arrested, she said.

From Almoayed’s perspective, it wasn’t until police arrived that the protest situation got tense and uncomfortable.

After the arrests, she wrote her editor’s phone number on her arm, just in case.

Then, she said, police charged the remaining students who were still on campus toward one of its main gates.

Almoayed was frightened, she said.

“If this gate falls down, she said, I could get hurt,” she thought. “I need to step back a bit.”

She stepped back, started filming with her phone, then heard a shot.

People, thinking police were firing tear gas, started running.

Another Annenberg student journalist spoke to someone who said they got hit with a rubber bullet to the abdomen. Police have yet to confirm whether employed less-lethal weapons toward the crowd that night.

A week later, Almoayed is thankful for the lessons she learned covering the protest, she said — but she’s also feeling frustrated.

USC, she said, feels “militarized” with only two gates to the 226-acre campus open to even students who have finals this week.

And the campus is closed off to everyone but students and faculty — including the media.

“There’s no one here to document what is going on,” Almoayed said, adding that puts more pressure on her and other student journalists to be the eyes and ears for the entire community.

The fact that outside media have been barred for the campus has also reinvigorated Nicholas Corral’s sense of responsibility as a student journalist.

  • Nicholas Corral, a freshman at USC and reporter with the...

    Nicholas Corral, a freshman at USC and reporter with the Daily Trojan. (Photo courtesy Nicholas Corral).

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Corral, a freshman staff writer with USC’s independent student newspaper the Daily Trojan, was also on scene to document what played out between the pro-Palestine demonstrators, counter-protestors, and police at the university.

“This period has been very tough because this is one of the biggest protests we’ve had on our campus,” Corral said, “and it’s not something that there’s this whole wealth of institutional knowledge in covering.”

It’s been a bit of a learning curve for Corral and other student journalists who are still learning the complexities of the industry.

“We were just starting out as the news was breaking, and we had to learn as the news was breaking,” Corral said. “Every single (thing needed) to be very specific, very correct — or maybe we’ll hear about it from someone who is affected by this. So that was a tough period for me personally.”

There was also concern amongst Daily Trojan reporters about being misidentified by law enforcement as protestors or regular students, Corral said, as they had yet to receive official press badges.

Once law enforcement got involved, he said, Daily Trojan reporters did their best to make it clear they were press. Some donned name tags reading “Hi, my name is ‘Daily Trojan reporter,’ while others wrote ‘reporter’ on their backs.

“There was a lot of uncertainty because in my mind, I’m a reporter,” Corral said. “In the mind, someone who’s coming on campus who’s never met me, I’m a student.”

But despite the challenges, Corral said, covering the situation at USC has been rewarding — especially once outside media were barred from coming on campus.

Police advance on demonstrators on the UCLA campus Thursday, May 2, 2024, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Ryan Sun)
Police advance on demonstrators on the UCLA campus Thursday, May 2, 2024, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Ryan Sun)

Student reporters, for example, were the only media able to directly report on a faculty march in support of student protests rights on Wednesday, May 1.

Outside media were only able to access those faculty members after they made their way to a gate were media were allowed to assemble.

“Student journalists (at organizations) including Annenberg Media and the Daily Trojan fill a big role,” Corral said, “not just for the campus community, but the outside world.”

And through the experience, Corral said, he’s never lost will do to journalism.

“I was never really in doubt,” Corral said. “I’m incredibly proud of the work that I’ve done and that we’ve done. It’s important — I never doubted that.”

Aside from UCLA and USC, other Southern California schools have also seen pro-Palestine demonstrations over the past few weeks — though on much smaller scales.

Danna Miramontes, a senior majoring in English with a minor in journalism at Cal Poly Pomona was on scene at her campus to cover one such demonstration this week.

Miramontes, who just begun working for the school’s newspaper, the Poly Post, at the start of the spring semester, got her start covering the Israel-Hamas conflict earlier this year — when some students came under university scrutiny after protesting a Lockheed Martin job workshop hosted on the campus.

Things were relatively quiet on campus, though, until the wave of protests at universities across the country kicked off a few weeks ago.

Protestors gathered at Cal Poly Pomona on Monday, April 29, to voice their concerns about Israel’s brutal counterattack in Gaza.

The demonstration consisted of a peaceful on-campus march and some speeches, with no plans for a long-term encampment seen at other universities including Columbia.

Miramontes, who had found out about plans for the event a few days prior, was on scene to report.

“I was pretty nervous,” Miramontes said in a Wednesday, May 1 interview, “I was just hitting the ground running. I was like, ‘I guess the training wheels are gone — and I have to face this head on.’”

And that she did. With guidance from fellow student reporters, faculty members, and mentors, Miramontes said she was able to navigate the nuances of covering her first big protest, despite concerns about her own safety in the back of her mind.

“People are harassing (journalists) more and more while they’re reporting, like the counter-protestors being really forceful at UCLA,” Miramontes said. “My mom, when I told her what I was doing, she was really worried for my safety because she also knows that journalists are attacked for what they have to say.”

And though the protest at Cal Poly Pomona was peaceful and over relatively quickly, Miramontes said it was a crucial way for her to learn how to approach protestors, counter-protestors, and law enforcement in a high-emotion situation like a political demonstration.

The U.S. Press Freedom Tracker, a nonpartisan website, which manages a database of assaults against journalists, has tallied more than 1,000 attacks against reporters — perpetrated by private individuals, police, politicians, and more — since 2017, for example.

“It does worry me. It’s always at the back of my mind,” Miramontes said. “But I think what gets me out of that mindset is knowing that people deserve to know what’s happening — that when I go into this field, I’m not gonna back down from reporting on the hard stuff because that’s what people go to news for.

“That’s important,” she said.

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