Student journalist covering protests: ‘We have to do it’

Caitlin Vogus Headshot

Deputy Director of Advocacy

The Sample Gates at Indiana University. Stone gates frame a university building with a clock tower

The Indiana Daily Student has been covering the Israel-Gaza war and campus protests since October, in the face of harsh pushback, a recalcitrant administration, and severe budget cuts. IUSampleGates.JPG by McAnt is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0.

Freedom of the Press Foundation (FPF) Deputy Director of Advocacy Caitlin Vogus speaks to IDS co-editor-in-chief Salomé Cloteaux and the Student Press Law Center’s Mike Hiestand about the challenges facing student journalists covering campus protests.

As police stormed several college campuses in recent days and arrested hundreds of students protesting the Israel-Gaza war, student journalists proved, once again, that they can report the news like professionals.

But unfortunately — just like professional reporters — student journalists are also being arrested, physically blocked from reporting, or even assaulted by police or others.

At Indiana University, the Indiana Daily Student has been covering the war and campus protests since October, including a campus encampment set up last week and the arrests of protestors by Indiana State Police on April 25 and 27. Even as the IDS proves its necessity to the campus community, the newspaper is facing potentially crippling budget cuts.

Freedom of the Press Foundation (FPF) Deputy Director of Advocacy Caitlin Vogus spoke to IDS co-editor-in-chief Salomé Cloteaux and the Student Press Law Center’s Mike Hiestand this week about the challenges facing student journalists covering campus protests.

Listen to the full conversation on X.

We have to do it.

“We’re all pretty tired,” Cloteaux said, remarking on the work of reporters at IDS who are covering the protests day and night even amid finals. “It’s tough, but I can’t think of anyone better than the [IDS] reporters,” she added. “We have to do it.”

Cloteaux said that the IDS staff has faced harsh criticism and worse since the beginning of its coverage of the war and protests in October. Staff members have been physically threatened, stalked, and subjected to harsh commentary on social media, she said.

By November, the backlash had taken such a toll on the IDS’s morale that Cloteaux felt she had to respond. She published a letter to readers explaining how the outlet covers the war and addressing the criticism it received. “We are acutely aware that reporting on the Israel-Hamas war is inherently polarizing, and the IDS has received criticism from each side,” Cloteaux wrote. But she laid out in detail the steps the IDS takes to ensure accurate reporting and provide a multitude of perspectives from community members.

The transparency worked. Cloteaux told FPF that the letter to readers inspired an outpouring of support for the IDS. Cloteaux said the response showed that the staff needed “to keep going, keep doing our work, because the community needs to be informed and we won't be deterred.”

Unlike student journalists at Columbia, Dartmouth, and elsewhere, IDS reporters haven’t faced arrests or violence against student reporters by police. But reporters still worry it could happen. “We've seen a lot of protesters being violently shoved to the ground and arrested, and it's definitely a possibility for us as journalists as well,” Cloteaux said.

The IDS has also encountered a recalcitrant university administration. “It’s hard to get a hold of them now,” Cloteaux said. Even as protesters are calling on IU president Pamela Whitten to resign and the faculty voted no-confidence, the administration is not responding to IDS questions or public records requests.

The IDS — which is owned by IU though editorially independent from the university — is also under severe financial pressure. Losses in funding mean that it’s had to let some professional staff go and publish a print paper just once a week. “These cuts really affect our ability to inform the public and to serve our community,” Cloteaux said.

A university committee formed to find solutions to funding issues for student media on campus initially gave the IDS hope. Unfortunately, Cloteaux said that the results have been disappointing, and the IDS learned it was likely to face additional, crippling budget cuts.

In response, the staff staged a walkout, declining to publish any news on its website for 24 hours to bring attention to what the community would lose if the IDS went dark. That day, students erected the campus encampment, and police arrested dozens of protesters.

Pushback on student journalism

The hostile response and financial pressures Cloteaux reported was no surprise to the SPLC’s Hiestand. He said that journalists who have contacted SPLC since October have reported “pushback largely from community members and, but sometimes from administrators, sometimes from other students.” But college journalists, Hiestand said, have “the same rights as professional journalists, and then some.”

The First Amendment protects college journalists reporting at public colleges and universities, but doesn’t apply to private institutions. However, Hiestand explained that they may have policies or guidelines that protect press freedom. “I would hope that all school administrators would recognize … the valuable work that the student journalists are doing on their campuses,” Hiestand said.

Some of the “most egregious pushback” has been against high school students, Hiestand reported. Student journalists at the high school level have less First Amendment protection, and SPLC champions state legislation to restore high school students’ free press rights.

Hiestand also emphasized how student journalism programs train the next generation of reporters. “You don't just flip a switch … when they hit, you know, 21 years old and say, you know, go do your thing,” he said. “There is a lot of training that's involved … in bringing about good journalism and good journalists.”

Making student journalists resilient

It’s an unfortunate reality that training student journalists must now include teaching them how to respond to illegal arrests or attacks, as well as how to remain resilient in the face of physical threats and harsh criticism.

Cloteaux offered some thoughts for her fellow student journalists on that point: “I would say when things get hard, when it's dangerous and difficult and you receive so much criticism for your work, that's when your work matters the most,” she said. “That's when journalism matters the most. So don't be deterred by that. Be inspired by it.”

Listen to the full conversation with Cloteaux and Hiestand here.

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