Student Journalist’s Ride-Along Leads to Year-Long Saga

In January 2009, a Temple University student journalist participated in a ride-along with a Philadelphia cop.  A year later, the story she wrote- and the consequences it hath wrought- are still in the spotlight.

The reason: Instead of penning a tame, cop-fights-crime-style profile, Shannon McDonald admirably reported what she truly saw- and heard.  She wrote the story for the Multimedia Urban Reporting Lab (MURL), a capstone journalism class at Temple.

According to a Philly Inquirer write-up, her observations included the officer uttering the N-word multiple times and making racist remarks about the area he was patrolling.  For example, he refers to one incident during the patrol as “TNS . . . typical n-gger shit.”

Once posted on the MURL site, the story, “Black and Blue,” led to the officer’s temporary firing (he has since been reinstated).  He appealed, leading to a contentious “absolute circus” of an arbitration hearing that found McDonald under attack on the stand.

She also endured personal insults in the story’s aftermath.  The Inquirer: “After her article appeared . . . [McDonald’s] e-mail and office phone numbers were published on a now-defunct website devoted to police topics. She got nasty messages calling her a ‘cop-hater,’ among other labels.”

Shannon McDonald, prior to her graduation from Temple University. (Julia Wilkinson/Temple News)

Does she think the officer failed to watch his mouth or check his attitude because she was simply a student journalist?  Yes- even though she was fully upfront about her plans to pen a piece for public consumption. Does she think her credibility was questioned for a similar lack of professional qualifications? Yes.  In her view, “When you put that word student in front of it [journalist], it just looks like a joke [to many outside critics of her work].”

Fortunately, she is at last beginning to be publicly labeled with a phrase that includes a third word: student journalist hero.  As an Inquirer staffer wrote this past week:

There’s a phrase that gets bandied about a lot, sometimes in relation to journalism: Speaking truth to power. It describes the remarkable courage that one person- maybe armed with little more than a notebook and a laptop- can show in taking on a massive and often corrupt institution. . . The tragedy here is that anyone who lives or works in Philadelphia and has seen the rampant corruption that exists here in its civic institutions knows that we need an entire army of Shannon McDonalds– but when one comes actually comes along, we allow the powerful to try to squash them like bugs. . . . Yet amazingly, in spite of that, there are still people willing to speak truth to power in this town. . . . Shannon McDonald wrote the truth as she saw it, and the verdict here is that she’s a hero.

And by the way, she earned an ‘A’ grade for the report. :-)

4 Responses to “Student Journalist’s Ride-Along Leads to Year-Long Saga”
  1. I am the co-director of the program Ms. McDonald wrote the story for. A couple of things:
    –I think it is important to press for equality between “student” journalists and others. Somehow “student” denigrates the work as some species of subhuman work. ;0).
    –Also, the article won first place in the SPJ Northeast region.

  2. Dan says:

    Professor Harper- Thanks so much for your comments. I agree, the denigration of the term ‘student journalist’ is less excusable than ever in our online empowerment era. As I argue frequently on the blog and in other writings, my advice is for students to wear the label as a badge of honor- considering the many reportorial advantages j-students have over the so-called ‘professionals’. :) Otherwise, please tell Carolyn, Ed, and Andrew a warm hello if you would. Cheers. – Dan

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