Covering COVID: Student journalists balance roles during the year’s biggest story

By Owen Milnes

In the span of days, everything that college students knew as normal was flipped upside down. Classes were replaced with teleconferences, residence hall rooms were replaced with childhood bedrooms and workspaces were transitioned online due to the spread of COVID-19. 

Every college student had to adjust to virtual instruction and coping with the loss of the life they had known prior to the virus, but student journalists were faced with reporting on it as well, having to balance full-time courseloads with full-time reporting. 

News came in every day, detailing the changes and restrictions because of the virus — restaurants shut down, campuses closed with no assurance of when they would reopen and every facet of life was required to be done at a safe physical distance to prevent the spread. 

Unpaid and sometimes feeling underappreciated, while coping with a drastic upheaval, student journalists across the state of Ohio rose to the occasion. Independent, student-run news outlets such as the Ohio University Post Athens, the Miami University Miami Student, the Kent State University Kent Stater, the Bowling Green State University BG News and Falcon Media and The Lantern at Ohio State University provided what seemed like nonstop coverage of the COVID-19 world, working across cities, states and timezones with their staff, driven by a sense of duty to the community they cover. 

Balancing the adjustment to online school and nonstop news proved a challenge for the news outlets, but they went above and beyond to provide their coverage. This is their story.

Listen below:

When news of a novel virus spreading in China began circulating at the beginning of 2020, student journalists from across the state of Ohio had no idea it would be the defining moment of their semester. But over the course of two months, the virus, now known as COVID-19, altered life as they knew it. 

On March 9, 2020, the staff and reporters of The Lantern were enjoying the first day of spring break. Kaylee Harter, the editor-in-chief, was sitting poolside in Mexico. Sam Raudins, the campus editor, was preparing for a trip to Boston with her boyfriend. Max Garrison, the administration reporter, was in Colorado on a ski trip with his family. 

But their spring break plans were upended as rumors of a campus shutdown to prevent the spread of COVID-19 began to circulate. 

As the evening went on, the rumors grew, and Raudins was told to keep an eye out for the university policy on COVID-19. At around 9:30 p.m. Eastern time, the Wexner Medical Center at Ohio State prematurely updated its website saying that Ohio State would be moving to virtual instruction for two weeks. At 10:06 p.m. Eastern time, Raudins texted the campus desk and asked a fellow reporter to start a draft with Garrison.

On March 9, at 9:50 p.m., Lantern reporter André White sent the Campus Desk a screenshot of the Wexner Medical Center website which said Ohio State would suspend face-to-face instruction. At this point, it wasn’t certain whether Ohio State would suspend in-person classes.

At 10:05 p.m., Sam Raudins, the campus editor, asks for an article to be written as if the information on the Wexner Medical Center website was true.

Screenshot of texts from Sam Raudins to the COVID Taskforce group message.

The Lantern published the story of Ohio State’s shutdown before any major news outlet, and this was only the beginning. The next morning, instead of skiing with his family, Garrison began emailing professors two time zones away to set up interviews and get information about what the rest of the semester would entail.

By 11:06 p.m., the story had been published, beating other news outlets. Raudins texted the two reporters, Owen Milnes and Max Garrison to pursue follow-up stories. The next day, the “Lantern COVID Taskforce” grew when Kaylee Harter, the editor-in-chief of the Lantern was added to the chat. From there, The Lantern special projects director Jack Long, reporter Sarah Szilagy, the managing editor for content Abhigyaan Bararia, copy chief Anna Ripken and assistant campus editor Lydia Weyrich were added.

Screenshots of texts in the COVID Taskforce group message.

“So rather than spending time with family like a normal college student would be, no matter the circumstances, I was getting up and having to report on this,” Garrison said. 

Ohio State’s actions set a precedent across the state, as student journalists at Miami University, Bowling Green State University, Kent State University and Ohio University started looking into the actions of their respective schools.

“I knew we were gonna have to be on high alert throughout the rest of the week, which we were, and then just dramatically, life shifted so quickly from that Monday night to the following Monday night,” Ceili Doyle, the managing editor of Miami University’s Miami Student, said. “It was like we were living in two different worlds.”

While Ohio State was on spring break, Miami University was in the middle of their semester. Doyle said she essentially shut off her school-related responsibilities, knowing she could catch up when the university went on its spring break. 

“It was kind of like, full guns blazing on the journalism side of things,” Doyle said.

On March 22, Kaylee Harter asks who is available to cover the daily Gov. Mike DeWine press conference. This is the day DeWine issued a statewide stay-at-home order.

Screenshots of texts in the COVID Taskforce group message.

Doyle, who graduated in the spring, said she missed the last in-person classes of her undergraduate career to attend press conferences and events at which administrators spoke. 

Madison MacArthur, the editor-in-chief of Kent State University’s Kent Stater, also missed the last day of her undergraduate classes. And like the other student journalists across the state, MacArthur said she threw herself into the endless news cycle. 

“We kept reporting and working on it and it takes a lot out but at the same time, it kind of helped drive me through that first week where in any other capacity, I would have just lost track of school completely,” MacArthur said. 

MacArthur said the Kent Stater and her duty to her staff and the community they report on helped drive her through the tumultuous time. 

“Otherwise, there was just going to be nothing for the rest of the semester from us, which wasn’t acceptable,” MacArthur said.

Listen to Ellen Wagner describe how The Post Athens transitioned to online print nights.

The student journalists, all driven by the same sense of duty as MacArthur, threw themselves into all of the news that kept coming, sacrificing spring break trips, classes, time with their family and any form of processing the stresses that came with life post-COVID-19. 

“One of the first things that people were sharing with each other about self care is to try to limit your media consumption, and in the profession that we all want to go into and in the student journalism realm, especially during this time, it was the one thing that we really couldn’t do,” Sarah Szilagy, the Lantern politics reporter, said.  “Because we are the media and acknowledging that the constant influx of information and updates and uncertainty was what was contributing a lot to my stress, and yet knowing that I had to continue to expose myself to it, … being able to share the experience with the rest of the people on staff really helped, but in the beginning, when I felt I did feel kind of alone, especially since we couldn’t see each other face to face, was really hard to adjust to.”

Szilagy’s stress was shared by the student journalists across the state, but despite the stress, obstacles of virtual school and the abrupt change of plans, they continued reporting and providing vital information to their communities. Their continued coverage can be viewed here:

The soundbite of Dr. Amy Acton was provided to The Lantern by Rachel Berry, the former news editor of the Miami Student. It was livestreamed on The Miami Student Facebook page.