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Covering Columbia’s Student Protests Gave Me Hope About Journalism’s Future

9 minute read
Sherif is an Egyptian - Iranian writer and journalist currently receiving her master's at Columbia's Graduate School of Journalism. Her reporting focuses on social justice, issues of race and identity

It was 2:30 in the morning and our smaller newsroom up on the fifth floor of Pulitzer Hall—the esteemed Graduate School of Journalism building at Columbia University—was pulsating with the sounds of Camp Rock’s “Can’t Back Down.” Jude Taha, a Palestinian journalist in the program, was leading the charge in rallying everyone to sing it with her. The stench of bitter instant coffee wafted throughout the room. Nestled in the corner, Edward Lopez, a photo journalism student, fought valiantly against sleep. He crouched next to his camera, which was perched on a tripod to capture a perfect vantage of our Morningside campus where roughly 70 colorful tents had been sprung up by students to protest Columbia University’s investment in companies profiting from Israel’s military operations in Gaza. In my drowsy haze of half-slumber, the temptation to surrender was strong.

Then, I remembered something one of my mentors had taught me earlier in my first class at journalism school. He had said that many of us will make a career out of making up for all the mistakes those before us have made. And that in those dark moments when outrage becomes a friend, “it [will] be journalism, and your integrity, that helps you soldier on.”

In his 1970 poem, American singer and poet Gil Scott-Heron said that the revolution would never be televised. My colleagues and I bore witness to that revolution. On April 18, Columbia’s J-school students—and many other journalism students around the country—found themselves right in the middle of what had quickly become an escalating and fast-moving breaking news story. For the next two weeks, we became dedicated to documenting the mobilization of pro-Palestinian students on our campus. We were a group of writers, filmmakers, photographers, and data journalists. We worked tirelessly. As some of us rested, others took turns reporting and venturing out to document the encampment on the lawn. We made makeshift beds on the floor, huddled in lightweight sleeping bags, and were sustained by chicken-flavored ramen noodles, dates dipped in chocolate, and stale tortilla chips. But our clarity was resolute: nothing held more significance to us than accurately portraying the truth about why the students' anti-war protests were happening and the core purpose of the encampment’s demands.

It’s no coincidence that the Pulitzer building stands toweringly atop the West lawn, where a perfect view of the encampment was visible at all hours of the day. The crackdown of campus security meant limited access to outside press, and what’s more, many students in the encampment harbored valid fears that their words would be twisted, misrepresented, or worse, cherry picked for a sound bite if they had spoken to the press. So they relied on us to tell their stories—accurately and with empathy.

Read More: What America’s Student Photojournalists Saw at the Campus Protests

I watched as my colleagues Gaia Caramazza, Carla Mende, and Kira Gologorsky, student filmmakers in the documentary program, carried their equipment back and forth, tirelessly shooting the reactions of students, many of whom they had built lasting connections with.

Many of us understood the importance of dedicating hours to engaging with the campers, understanding their stories and embracing their rhythms of life—the usual meal times, music breaks, and downtime routines—and discerning the subtle cues that would foretell impending trouble.

Carla Mende, left, and Gaia Caramazza, in the newsroom.
Carla Mende, left, and Gaia Caramazza, in the newsroom.Elza Goffaux

“Please do let the world know,” a Jewish student, speaking on conditions of anonymity, said to me following a Shabbat service in the encampment. “Show them how much love exists here.” Minutes later Muslim students held their evening prayer service. On day eight, I listened as a Palestinian storyteller shared his poetry which concluded with the words: “I have never felt harmony the way I have this past week, here in this camp, united by a shared love for a group of people that many are so desperately trying to erase.”

Slowly, the encampment also became a close-knit community for many of my colleagues and me. The call to prayer reminded Caramazza of her childhood spent in Jordan. The communal food station set up in the corner closest to Butler Library felt like the physical manifestation of the Arabic saying "beity beitak" (my home is your home) for Samaa Khullar, a Palestinian journalist and colleague in the program. For me, it was playing soccer with other students in the encampment, a traditional sport that united almost every community in the Arab world regardless of their background. I came to realize that I had fostered deep care for the encampment’s affiliates. On cold nights, I worried if they had enough blankets to keep them warm. I worried about their families, some of whom were based in Gaza, and the messages they might wake up to the following morning. It was only natural for me as I immersed myself in their shoes, to reflect on the kind of support and compassion communities crave during times of grief. I approached them with an open mind and heart—one that involved dismantling my own barriers to really understand a community that was rupturing and reshaping history in real time. And as much as I thought I knew, there was so much more I didn’t—and would have remained oblivious to—had I failed to build the level of trust these protestors deserved.

My colleagues and I, many of us who had grown up abroad and reported on international communities for much of our time at Columbia, spent days discussing the significance of capturing this moment in history just as it was, and of bearing witness to the daily movements and experiences of those in the encampment. The protestors were not required to allow us into the encampment; that was not a responsibility they needed to shoulder. But just as any good, trauma-informed reporter knows, to tell a story honestly means to establish safe spaces for people to tell their stories at their own pace, a byproduct only made possible through deep listening.

What so many of my J-school colleagues and I yearned to translate to those encroaching upon our turf was that in order to really know what the movement was about, one had to engage with the students by approaching the stories that focused more on the underlying causes and motivations of the encampment, rather than arbitrary violence. For weeks on end, the encampment's residents found themselves at the intersection of both visibility and vulnerability. Students wanted to spotlight the injustices transpiring in Gaza—instead, they became the faces behind a national news story. I watched as their identities and lived experiences quickly became eclipsed by many sensationalist headlines when the reality was far from it.  

Ray (their last name has been kept private for anonymity), for instance, an artist and undergraduate student at Barnard whom I encountered a week into the encampment, dedicated her afternoons to painting portraits of Palestinians in Gaza. Her canvases pulsated with brown hues, chromes, and crimson applied through watercolor ink to stroke the urgency of the situation in Gaza. Ray had just celebrated Passover in the encampment a few days earlier and mentioned the bizarre moment she woke up to find a camera in her face, snapping pictures inside her unzipped tent: “The least they can do is ask, or try to get to know me first.”

It was impossible to have witnessed and reported on the mobilization of students so passionately dedicated to anti-war and liberation efforts, and not be affected by it. The movement demanded a response from each and every one of us of in the student body, And everyone in our newsroom felt it. Our newsroom came to multiple breaking points, but it was also our saving grace. ​​I was of two worlds as both a student and journalist. I knew just how deeply these students were hurting, but I also knew what we had to do in the spirit of journalistic responsibility. And while I have often been told that compassion stands in the way of good journalism, recent weeks have shown me that it is the lack of compassion that gets in the way of real storytelling.

Read More: My Writing Students Were Arrested at Columbia. Their Voices Have Never Been More Essential

Despite the narrative of journalism's decline or saturation with misinformation, watching my J-school colleagues’ collective conscience rise up and solemnly agree to do right by a community so stained by tragedy has reaffirmed to me that there still exists an enduring power of keeping one another safe in this industry. It was all around me when I searched for it. We knew how and where to draw the line of truth versus hysteria that is breached in journalism with little regard, even and most especially, as we reported on our own peers.

Years from now, when the next generation of young journalists are tasked with a duty this arduous (and they will), I trust that they will hold on to the hope and camaraderie that I witnessed firsthand: a spirit of journalism that models the empathy and dignity Gaza’s victims and all vulnerable communities deserved. A journalism that speaks honestly and meaningfully, with context and sensitivity. The type of journalism that does not involve reporting on a community, but rather with and for them.

The encampment is now cleared. Hamilton Hall has been “restored,” and the N.Y.P.D are now stationed at every corner of our campus. The students may not have won, in the traditional sense. But they achieved something much more powerful than that: They globalized the Palestinian saying “Lan Nerhal” (we will not leave). For the first time, students felt they could proudly stride campus walkways wearing the keffiyeh. For the first time, the true depth of the Palestinian struggle was thrust onto the mainstream stage. And my J-school peers made certain that the encampment and its’ cause were not to be covered as a passing trend, but as one steadfast community’s call for immediate action in the face of the destruction in Gaza—one of the most harrowing atrocities many of us have ever seen in our lifetime.

In less than a week, my J-school colleagues and I are graduating. Reflecting on what I learned while covering the encampment, I’ve observed that the best way to tell a story isn’t to parachute in and out of it. Instead, it is to always have a stake in it. Only, then, can we truly understand the crushing impact that our words have on the communities we write about.

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