Daily Texan Reporter Reflects on Covering Fisher v. Texas Supreme Court Case

Andrew Messamore has arguably enjoyed the most interesting reporting day within collegemediatopia so far this semester.  He flew to Washington D.C. last week, reporting live Wednesday from the hallowed chambers of the U.S. Supreme Court.

The Daily Texan enterprise reporter was there to cover oral arguments in a high-profile case involving the “race-conscious admissions process” employed by the University of Texas and many other schools nationwide.

As Messamore explains in a related report, Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin involves “Abigail Fisher, a white student who was denied admission to UT in 2008.  Fisher sued UT claiming the university violated her right to equal protection under the 14th Amendment because the university included race as a factor in her application.  UT says race-conscious admissions are necessary to create meaningful diversity, but Fisher argues the university racially discriminated against her because its policies favor underrepresented groups.”

In the brief Q&A below, Messamore discusses his coverage’s aims and what it was like reporting from inside the Supreme Court.  He also offers advice for other student journalists faced with reporting on similar broad-based issues of national significance.

How did you end up covering the case?

I expressed interest in the case earlier in the semester.  I wanted to explore the subject.  I was an intern for the San Antonio Express-News over the summer, where I worked as a government and politics reporter.  I had come to know a little bit about the case.  I’d gone through some of the briefs and some of the filings.  I was really curious as to what the decision would be.

Amid the many news outlets providing coverage of the oral arguments, what was your particular goal and focus?

I had a pretty set purpose.  A lot of the media have focused disproportionately on the individual stories of the case.  [For example] The New York Times took the position of looking at this through the lens of Abigail Fisher [the young woman denied admission to UT]. . . . The Wall Street Journal took this from the perspective of [Supreme Court Justice] Anthony Kennedy, who everyone is looking at as the swing vote.

There’s a merit to using that kind of individual storytelling to explain a social issue.  But what I wanted to do was explain what was going to happen to the legal precedent and the big picture of how this case may really change the way we think about diversity and race.  I wanted to get away from focusing too much on only the people and move toward understanding how structures of thinking about race– and how race matters in our society– are more relevant and help our readers understand the subject we’re trying to get at.

The core was also to understand the arguments.  That’s what I was there to do.  That’s what really sets the tone for the country [on any given case], what goes on in the room.

[In part, he said, he used a portion of the argument before the Supreme Court as a way to explore the true meaning behind diversity within higher education.]  Is it a racial category?  You just admit students who are self-identified as different things.  Is it a number?  Is it a group of people you put into a room?  Or is it something else, something kind of looser, such as the concepts addressed or embodied by people when they come to university . . . including people who challenge stereotypes such as an African-American fencer or an Hispanic who has mastered classical Greek.

Those kinds of different challenges to the stereotypes I felt were very central to this issue and I think the Court was trying to find a way to measure that.  And I’m not sure what their final ruling on that will be.

What was it like to witness the arguments and the Justices in action firsthand?

It was really exhilarating.  First off, you’re a college journalist, working with parking meters or student organizations, these small issues, and then you walk into a room where these larger issues like race, zoning, and demographics become part of this national discussion about what it all means.  You see how these little things you cover day to day as a local reporter enter the national discussion and how it all comes together to decide the policy and law that will determine the narrative of race in American society.

To see the Justices, the very people on the highest court, tackling the same questions you have analyzed, is an amazing experience.  You see your level of reporting and discussion entering a whole other level of conceptualizing and discussing an issue.

I felt very honored to represent the university and to be sitting on the same bench as reporters from The Washington Post and New York Times, in a room where I was one of only a few people able to witness history unfold.  There’s nothing quite like it. . . . I was thinking, “It’s really amazing I’m here, but I’ve got a job to do.

What is your advice for student journalists covering a nationally-significant story like this?

The best way to get into these kinds of national issues is to not get too wrapped up in individual stories, to not get too wrapped up in the people.  Keep in mind always the bigger things going on, the bigger issues.  Keep in mind the ideas. . . . Think about how a structure of thought can physically impact the lives of individuals, but also the story of those concepts.

Maybe it’s the chicken or the egg.  On the one end you have the broad idea and on the other end you have the person.  The egg, for me, is the idea.  Start with the idea and then go to the person.  Don’t do it the other way around.

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