Former CC Spin editor keynotes awards

Harvard Crimson president shares journalism lessons

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Harvard Crimson photo

CC Spin alum Amanda Su was the keynote speaker at the annual Lesher Awards.

(Editor’s note: Amanda Y. Su is the 2021 president of The Harvard Crimson, a graduate of Dougherty Valley High School, and a former CC Spin student editor. She was the keynote speaker for the 2021 Lesher High School Journalism Awards, which was held via video conference on May 20. Here is a transcript of her remarks.)

As I imagine has been the case for all of your student newspapers and news websites, The Crimson has been operating totally remotely for the past year and put print production of our daily newspaper on indefinite pause.

It has been a challenging year for student journalists, both considering the volume and magnitude of the issues we’re covering during the pandemic and the fact that we’re being forced to do it at a distance from our fellow student journalists and friends. I still remember that the best part of working for a high school newspaper was actually getting to be in-person with my peers, collaborating on writing and editing stories, designing the layout of the pages, running around campus covering events and conducting interviews with students, teachers, and administrators. I’ve admired the incredible content all of you have been able to produce through such difficult circumstances and the important work you’ve done to keep your campus communities informed and updated on the latest COVID-19-related news during a period plagued by surely record-breaking uncertainty.

Before becoming president of The Crimson in January 2021, I served as a reporter covering the college administration beat, which meant that I reported on Harvard College and Harvard College administrators. But when the coronavirus hit our campus, my beat abruptly and unofficially became COVID-19, specifically its impact on undergraduates. I ended up writing around 100 coronavirus-related stories in total and sometimes up to 7 articles a week. At this point, I probably know more about COVID-19’s impact on undergraduates at Harvard more than any person would find useful or necessary; but I’m grateful for what it has taught me about my university, my campus, and my fellow students, as well as what it has taught me about reporting and student journalism. 

I know all of us are excited for the day when we only remember the pandemic as a distant memory, but I was also thinking about what a tremendous loss it would be to forget the lessons we’ve learned from this time. So that’s what I’d like to share with you all today: the lessons I’ve learned from my year as a student reporter covering the COVID-19 pandemic. And to start, I wanted to begin by doing what I enjoy most, which is telling a story.

In February and early March 2020, Harvard undergrads had been receiving constant missives from Harvard administrators about coronavirus-related travel restrictions, cancelled campus events, and hygiene tips. We all knew Covid was a thing at the time but we never thought it would reach our campus or materially affect our daily lives. But we woke the morning of March 10 to a different kind of message. At the top of our inboxes was an email from our University President and our Dean of the College telling us classes were moving online, and more consequentially, that we had one week to move out and evacuate campus. I received the shocking news at 9 a.m. along with hundreds of texts from my Harvard Crimson editor about writing a “student reax” story. 

Grabbing my laptop and camera, I ran to The Crimson’s building on 14 Plympton Street to meet my co-writer Juliet Isselbacher and immediately got to work. For the next 12 hours, we scoured Twitter, sent what felt like scores of emails, and chased strangers for a quote, amid the apocalyptic chaos of friends tearfully embracing in the middle of the stairway, cardboard boxes flooding onto the street, and hordes of people beelining to daytime parties.

Most of the students we spoke with shared feelings of shock and sadness over being abruptly kicked off campus and forced to say unexpected, unsatisfactory goodbyes to their friends, all valid sentiments shared by every undergraduate across the College. Throughout the day, my phone was constantly ringing with calls from students responding to my outreach emails asking if they would be open to being interviewed. At one point, Juliet and I actually stopped in the middle of the street to do an interview over the phone. We were walking around outside talking to students when we received the call and couldn’t find a quiet room to speak in on time so we did the phone interview right then and there.

Several conversations later, we received a call from a student who had a noticeably different tone. As a first-generation low-income college student, they shared unique worries about the particularly disruptive and devastating consequences the campus eviction would have on their livelihood. From there, the student connected us with others in similar situations, and we spent the rest of the day in quiet conversations with this group of first-generation low-income undergraduates who were hit especially hard by the news. 

After several dozen interviews, the pitched generic reactions piece unexpectedly transformed into a more specific, complex story about how low-income students had to confront the overlooked challenges of booking costly flights, affording storage space, replacing vital campus jobs, and learning online at home, which for one student is an internet-less house in rural Texas and for another is a sailboat in England. We finished writing and editing the story by 9 p.m. the same day — exactly 12 hours later — and it was published on the front page of our print newspaper the next morning.

LESSONS LEARNED

Sometimes you’re going to have to talk to a lot of people until you find the story.

You might speak with dozens or hundreds of people and not end up quoting any of them. That’s not to say that those conversations are useless or a waste of time. If anything, they’re helping to expand your understanding of an issue, lead you to and refine your angle, and point you in other directions for future pieces. Many of the most important conversations you have with people as a journalist might never appear in or be meant to appear in a final piece. But they’re essential to helping you start and build genuine relationships with your sources. It’s important to remember that, as journalists, we aren’t entitled to anyone’s stories. And you might be asking for access to some of the most intimate and traumatic moments of people’s lives. Beyond those I interviewed on March 10, over the course of the pandemic, I also interviewed students grieving the loss of loved ones to coronavirus and students battling housing and food insecurity. 

The onus is on us to earn the trust of our sources. Over the course of the pandemic, we tried to keep in touch with the same several dozen students we interviewed on March 10. I interviewed them for other stories, and they put me in touch with other students and sources. I also spoke with a few of them several times without a specific story in mind just to provide them with opportunities to openly tell me how they have been faring during the pandemic and make them feel comfortable coming to me if they ever had a pitch or story idea. 

We all know that Covid has had multi-faceted and long-lasting consequences. So while chasing your next story and byline, it’s important not to forget that stories don’t end at publication for the people who are living them. As journalists, we have a duty to honor the complexity and longevity of people’s stories and experiences.

As a student journalist reporting on your school, the most important people you can talk to are students.

As a college administration reporter, I frequently interviewed university administrators and reported regularly on any announcements and emails they sent out to students. I used to think it was exciting to get one-on-one interviews with public officials, famous professors, and powerful administrators — but now I realize, sometimes, they can actually be some of the least exciting people to interview. That’s not because they aren’t interesting people with interesting perspectives and opinions, but because they’re very rarely providing their honest ones, and are always talking through a spokesperson, filtering their responses, or declining to comment. 

Students on the other hand, don’t have to filter what they say. And more times than not, they will provide you the most colorful, candid quotes, stories, and information. Here are some examples of scoops we got from sourcing students when administrators wouldn’t talk to us:

  • Harvard Dismisses Three Students from Dorms After September Indoor Party
  • Student Focus Group Instructed to Assume Harvard Will Bring Up to 40 Percent of Undergraduates Back in the Fall

Beyond simply being useful, student voices simply matter more. They don’t have the same platforms and megaphones administrators do, so it’s important for journalists to provide them. 

At this point, I’ve covered nearly every aspect of Harvard College’s handling of the pandemic — breaking stories about the administration’s controversial decision-making surrounding campus employment, the switch to a pass-fail grading system, and plans to reopen campus for the fall. But I feel like my most important coverage has focused on excavating the lesser told ramifications of these decisions and the pandemic at large. I’ve learned you can’t report on COVID-19 without reporting on low-income students grappling with the financial burdens of remote learning; international students facing byzantine travel restrictions and a federal order threatening their ability to remain in the country; and students in abusive households battling exacerbated mental health conditions and new anxieties at home.

Reframe how you measure your success as a journalist. 

I used to get caught up in measuring my success as a student journalist through the number of bylines, retweets, and awards I got. But my reporting during the pandemic made me realize that being a successful journalist isn’t really about any of those quantifiable metrics. It’s about how you’re changing the way people think, how you’re starting and steering conversations, and highlighting issues people otherwise wouldn’t be considering or discussing. By expanding awareness of struggles students are facing, which subsequently leads to increased public pressures on schools and universities, student journalists can push their institutions to step up and better meet student needs. 

Some stories may prompt some major change or progress immediately after they’re published. But it’s also important to remember that change doesn’t always happen overnight, and you might never see the impact and influence of your reporting during your time as a student. Journalism isn’t about immediate gratification. And it’s also not always about how widely stories are read but if they are reaching and being read by the right people. Even if it doesn’t seem like your reporting is making a difference, every new perspective and issue you highlight is reaching, educating, and helping someone out there. And even if it’s just one person, that impact is more than enough.

Students journalists know the stories at their schools better than anybody else does.

You have direct access to the student body and a direct understanding of what issues are affecting them because you are a student yourself. Use that to your advantage. Much of the sourcing I did and how I found story pitches was through social media, conversations with friends, and interestingly, anonymous confessions groups on Facebook.

Professional news outlets look to student journalists for information because they’re not able to be on the ground like you are. At The Crimson, we had reporters from the Times, the Post, NPR, and CNN re-reporting our stories, occasionally without credit, and asking us for the contact info of our sources. The important lesson to take away from this is that you are not any less of a journalist than a journalist at the Times or the Post, so take pride in your work and protect it.

But with that direct understanding of your campus community and the issues affecting it also comes challenges. As a student reporter, you often have to put your own worries and emotions on hold to report the story. 

When Harvard announced they were kicking students off campus, I remember having to push my own reactions to the side to prioritize speaking to my peers about theirs. It was only in the deadtime — between returning to The Crimson’s building to file our story at night and the presses in The Crimson’s basement churning out the historic paper — that the adrenaline keeping me numb throughout the day subsided. I finally had the chance to process what was happening. I emailed professors to apologize for skipping class and texted friends to schedule times to say goodbye. I called my mom from one of our offices at The Crimson to tell her I was coming home.

I’ve said this several times now but being a student journalist is a hard job. It’s difficult to remember to do and I struggle with it myself, but make sure you give yourself the chance to breathe, to process your emotions, and to take care of yourself. And most importantly, find community and support in your advisors and fellow student journalists who are experiencing these challenges and burdens alongside you.

IN CONCLUSION

During a Crimson meeting I was in a few weeks ago, my colleagues started discussing the fact that many extracurricular activities and clubs have stopped operating during the pandemic, some out of necessity like sports teams but also others that have just decided to take a break. But we noticed that we had yet to see a student newspaper cease producing content. 

During the meeting, one of our editors shared a sentiment that I want to leave you all with today: student newspapers and student journalists are essential workers of their student bodies. I hope that even once the pandemic is over, all of you carry the weight, importance, and honor of that responsibility with pride and conviction.

Thank you.