“You are a journalist:” The Cav Daily, “Unite the Right” fallout and the importance of local media

Editor’s Note: There is a fine line between telling a story and milking a story, especially one like this. To err on the side of caution, this is the third (and last, for now) in a short series of posts about the Cavalier Daily’s coverage of the chaos over the weekend in Charlottesville. Part I reviews the preparation and the Friday march of white supremacists on campus.  Part II talks about the Saturday events, including the death of 32-year-old Heather Heyer.

Tim Dodson, the paper’s managing editor, helps me wrap up the trilogy with a look at what people were saying in the aftermath and why student media matters every day. Tim stressed that the ongoing coverage was a team event and you can continue to see that today with a look at Bridget Starrs’ piece on the candle-light vigil on the University of Virginia campus.

Any mistakes are mine, not Tim’s. Corrections and tweaks are likely necessary and gratefully received.

National news organizations spent much of Wednesday reviewing President Donald Trump’s reversal on the condemnation of the white supremacists who descended upon Charlottesville. Talking head shows on Fox, CNN and MSNBC debated the big picture of white supremacy. The Associated Press put out a statement on its new rule for the term “alt-right” (in quotes only, as the term “is meant as a euphemism to disguise racist aims”). Great-great-great grandfolk of Confederate leaders spoke out about what should be done with monuments to the era of secession.

In some ways, Charlottesville became almost inconsequential as a town and as a people. In an interview right conducted shortly after the chaos of the weekend, Cavalier Daily Managing Editor Tim Dodson pretty much saw this coming.

“The national news outlets come into town when something like this happens and they report the major facts and the controversy,” Dodson said. “Then they leave, but we are the ones who are going to have to live with the outcomes of this. How are people going to heal from this going forward?”

Dodson wasn’t relying on cliche when he told me, “We live here.” He is from Charlottesville and stuck around his hometown to attend U.Va. after graduating from high school in 2015. As students roll into town in anticipation of next week’s start of the fall semester, Dodson said the staff of the Cav Daily continue to look for things that will affect them.

“I think we need to tell the stories that relate to students that no one else will have access to,” he said. “How does what happened (over the weekend) influence campus safety? How do students feel coming back into this environment? We’re not going to see stories like that on CNN or any other national outlet… I think that speaks to the role of local news and the importance of local journalism.”

Dodson said the staff’s goal was to look for ties between the publication’s campus readership and the events as they unfolded. For example, Heather Heyer, the 32-year-old woman killed during Saturday’s events, was a waitress at a restaurant adjacent to campus. Cav Daily reporters interviewed her friends and colleagues, some of whom had ties to U.Va.

The staff covered the candle-light vigil held on campus as well as the lawsuit filed in relation to the car-based attack on counter protesters. The Cav Daily also ran a story in which the university president, citing the violent events of the weekend, requested that students cancel this year’s “Block Party,” an off-campus, back-to-school event often laden with alcohol.

“We are trying to find angles that speak to the student experience,” he said. “We are not just in a bubble here at U.Va… However, you try to figure out how you can differentiate yourself by telling a story as a student.”

As the national outlets go bigger with the white supremacist story (CNN is now telling people where hate groups are in their area), and the Cav Daily goes for more local stories, one thing ties them together: They are all journalists, telling stories that matter to their readers. That can be a harder task for student journalists in a lot of ways.

“I think a lot of the reasons why professors and members of the community don’t like student journalists is because there is more risk involved,” Dodson said. “We’re not as seasoned as the pros. We’re going to make mistakes. We don’t always have the best email etiquette. Those experiences can rub sources the wrong way and that’s a challenge.”

Even knowing that, one of the themes Dodson kept coming back to was this: Don’t settle.

” I don’t think (a student journalist) should be intimidated because when you’re on the scene, you are working with the same situation and the same facts,” he said. “Don’t be intimidated because you are “just” a student journalist. You are a journalist. You don’t have to predicate that with “student.” You are a journalist.”

“I think it can be really problematic when students settle for less,” he added. “If all they do is email and quote from emails and write from a dorm room, well, that’s not journalism. Get on a phone, talk to someone in person, go to the scene in person. That’s what journalists do… Rather than taking press releases and emails, really put yourself out there.”

The Cav Daily crew proved that point this weekend when staffers waded into the chaos of the “Unite the Right” rally. Police in riot gear were everywhere. Members of white supremacist groups waved flags adorned with symbols of hate and toted military-style weapons. Tear gas made it hard to see and breathe at some points.

Still, the journalists did what journalists do: They reported the news.

“There were so many questions and concerns from people in the area,” Dodson said. “The media played a very important role in getting stories out there… I was one person on a team of journalists and I’m very proud of the members of our staff. We saw people with weapons and we saw people chanting and fighting, but we needed to tell the stories. Our team threw itself into it.”

“In retrospect, I probably should have been more worried about my personal safety,” he added. “But we were more worried about getting the stories out there.”

 

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