How one student media outlet covered an international story on its own campus
While their counterpoints at other schools were juggling finals and preparing for winter break, the student journalists at Texas A&M’s The Battalion were covering the controversy and protests surrounding a speech given by white nationalist Richard Spencer.
Editor in Chief Sam King explains how her staff planned for coverage that went national, made tough decisions under pressure and managed to still passed their finals. We hope.
The Battalion broke the story that Richard Spencer would be speaking on campus because of an advertising request. What played into your decision to not run the ad?
If our advertising office thinks an ad is questionable, it is sent to me for approval, where I’ll do some research into the company asking for advertisement. If we think that they go against our values, aka promote racist or otherwise hateful ideals, we’ll turn it down. After doing my research on Spencer and Wiginton, the decision was pretty straightforward. We didn’t feel comfortable being funded by an organization or people who hold values so hateful.
Can you explain how you planned for the extensive coverage you provided?
After seeing the attention the initial story gained, we knew from there on out people beyond our normal readership would be looking to us to continue reporting on this story, and to continue to do so well. From there it became a matter of discussing with the staff what we thought would a.) best serve our readership and b.) continue the conversation. The initial story broke a couple days before Thanksgiving, so when we got back to our regular production we questioned ourselves everyday, “What story can we tell about this? Which perspective can we tell?”
We were reached out to by different people telling us they had a story to tell, or a side to share. And then on top of that, the whole staff was really energized by the enormity of the story that they really found the stories that needed to be told pretty easily.
[We began planning] almost immediately after we broke the story. [We] isolated the areas we knew we’d needed to cover: Spencer’s talk, the protests and the Aggies United counter event hosted by the university. Then we asked our talented desk editing team to put forward writers and photographers they thought would be up to the task. We told them to prepare their staff for a long night Tuesday.
The Thursday before the events, we had a meeting that included [everyone involved in coverage] so we could discuss the details of what we wanted done. There, we assigned each staff member one of the three “teams.” We put at least two reporters, two photographers and one videographer on each team, with extra resources being put toward the protest team because we knew those would be the most widespread. We put in our press clearance requests for the Aggies United and were cleared for all five people. [We] only got two spots for the speech, so we relocated the other three people to handle the line outside the speech and to stand outside the room of the speech in case anyone was escorted from the room or if the protests moved outside the room, which they did.
We instructed everyone to arrive at 3:30 p.m. (3.5 hours before the actual speech began) on Tuesday so we could go over things again. We told them to prepare for a long day, to dress in business casual and to be ready for anything. “Adaptability” was the word we preached most regarding our coverage.
We also decided to have a team stay in our office to be running the main account’s Twitter, to be fielding calls, relocating people as necessary, transcribing interviews as they came in and to act as a home base for everything. This is where myself, my managing editor and a few other editors spent Tuesday night, and we were just as busy, although more stationary, than the reporters out in the field.
Why did you think it was so important?
We felt that because it was affecting so many people, because so many people had so many strong emotions and opinions about it, we owed it to our readership to cover every aspect possible to the fullest extent.
However, there was one move we made that was actually a decision not to include any coverage of Spencer in our print edition on Tuesday, and it was a move I think I’m most proud of and that goes for a lot of our staff, too.
The Tuesday of the event was our last print paper for the week because we have an abbreviated print schedule during finals week. The first Tuesday of the month is also the day our school holds Silver Taps, a solemn ceremony held at 10:30 p.m. in honor of students who have passed away in the month before. During the ceremony thousands of students stand in Academic Plaza in total silence while a gun salute is given and a special rendition of “Taps” is played. The lights on campus are dimmed and everyone gathers and [honors] the student(s) we’ve lost.
The same Tuesday in The Battalion we run an obituary piece on the student(s). This Tuesday happened to be the same one Richard Spencer would be on campus. So my staff decided that while it would have made sense to do all our advance content on his visit in that paper, we decided that there would be absolutely no mention of Spencer. Instead the paper was dedicated to the student who had died.
The staff also made the decision later that night to pause our [Spencer] coverage online/on social media during Silver Taps so we could all attend, before resuming it later.
What do you wish you’d done differently, if anything?
This is a hard question to answer because I’m so proud of everything my staff did. I think really the only call we made that I wish we’d made sooner was to disable the comments on the YouTube livestream. We left them on for 24 hours and that allowed thousands of “alt-right” supporters to just be awful and hateful in the comment section. Our livestream was shared by an “alt-right” website, bringing thousands of people to our site. We turned off comments during the livestream itself, but I wish we’d turned them off the video earlier, too.
But otherwise, I’m really pleased with how everything turned out. I think we all learned a lot, even from our mistakes, making those mistakes worth making in the first place.
What advice would you give other student media who might encounter a story of similar scope?
PLAN! I can’t stress enough how much the planning we did paid off Tuesday night. There’s no way you’re going to be able to predict everything that’s going to happen in a situation, so be ready to be adaptable.
For me, too, the discussion and debate we had with our staff was invaluable. We got a lot of criticism from a lot of different parties about the various aspects of our coverage, but because I knew that my staff supported the decisions we’d made, it was a lot easier to field those emails and messages.
But planning, staying calm and having a good team I could rely on really helped.
How hard was it to decide to broadcast Spencer’s talk live?
It was very hard, and it was a decision I was originally against. None of us supported his message, and we were fully aware that giving him the attention and coverage was something he wanted. But we also knew there were people who wanted to hear exactly how hateful this guy is. They wanted to know, uncensored and unfiltered, what was being said. There were people who wanted to attend so they could question him on what he was saying, but they didn’t feel comfortable because of the people who would have potentially been in that room.
We did let Spencer reach his supporters by streaming it. But we also opened Spencer up, unedited, unfiltered and honestly, to people who will criticize and question him. We said it in the letter from the editor we published at the end of Tuesday, but I think it sums it up best: “We felt the only way to combat hatred was to give it a name.” In deciding to stream him live and in his entirety, we were removing the even slight possibility that what people were getting from others was a slanted, made-to-look-extra-hateful version of himself. They got the honest, hateful version of Spencer with our coverage, and I know many appreciated it.
How did you handle it when the police threatened to not allow you back into your own space?
Honestly that one goes to our adviser, Doug Pils, who was an invaluable asset to us during our planning and handling of this coverage. As students, when you’re being told by someone in a uniform that you can’t get back into your office, it’s intimidating and difficult to stand up to them and say, “No, I can. I’m with the press and this is my office.” Doug really helped us navigate that, whether it was telling the officers themselves, talking with university officials to clear things up or letting students in the back door after it was locked. His help Tuesday night was a big deal to everyone on staff and I know we all appreciated it.
A video produced by a Battalion staffer was used by ABC News and so far has almost 750,000 views. How has your staff dealt with the spotlight being on you?
Being a student paper, our end goal is really to help teach our staff the skills they’ll need to be successful out in “the real world,” and help set them up for a career in journalism when they graduate. So we told them, “If a reporter or a news site is asking to use your content, that’s totally fine, just make sure that they credit you and The Battalion.” For the most part, everyone has. And that’s really exciting for everyone. Our readership, our audience, went from the 60,000 people who go to school at A&M to the country on Tuesday night, which was incredible.
There’s certainly some stress that goes along with that, too. I mean, we’re 20 year olds with, at most, four years of journalism experience behind us reporting on the same story that CNN is out there doing. But I really think we held our own and the fact that we were picked up by ABC, NBC, CW, BuzzFeed and more just proves that to me. Our staff has handled it with grace and maturity that far exceeded my expectations, and I couldn’t be prouder.
How do you think you did on your final projects and exams while dealing with all this attention?
Ha! My mom likes to emphasize the “student” in student journalist whenever test time comes around. Yes, it was definitely difficult balancing breaking national and even international news with my rhetoric final. Did I study as much as I probably should have? No, probably not but it still looks like I’ll be graduating in May In fact, fun story: As I was taking my rhetoric final, the last question was an excerpt from the editorial I wrote, asking us to decide which rhetorical device it utilized. Now, I don’t know if I got it right or not, but it was cool that I actually wrote one of my exam questions. Just proved to me that what we did was important and the school was paying attention.