Guest Blogging: “Journalists are never on vacation”

Each week, we will strive to post content from a guest blogger with an expertise in an area of the field. This week, we are fortunate to have Steven Chappell, the director of student media at Northwest Missouri State University. He has been a working journalist for various publications since 1985 and today he discusses the importance of always being aware of potential stories, no matter where you are or what else is going on. Interested in being our next guest blogger? Contact us here.
When the emergency alert signaling an incoming missile arrived on cell phones across Hawaii Jan. 14, NPR’s White House correspondent Tamara Keith was in the middle of her first extended vacation with her family since the election. I imagine covering Trump’s first year as president means you have earned some well deserved time off. But for Keith, it meant just the opposite (
Keith’s vacation was immediately interrupted. Rather than say, “I’m on vacation,” she picked up her phone, interviewed people in the hotel lobby during and after the crisis, called into NPR headquarters to report live and then later filed another report, with interviews of locals and tourists and how they reacted to the crisis.
That same night, disaster struck the student body at the college where I teach. A Northwest Missouri State University student was struck and killed by a pick-up truck while exiting a local bar. The driver of the truck plowed into the front of the bar while allegedly drunk. The bar was full of undergraduate students enjoying a three-day weekend following the first day of classes. Among those students — three employees of student publications.
I learned of the crash about 9 a.m. Sunday morning when one of two local Maryville weekly newspapers posted it to Facebook. I texted the paper’s editors and told them they should be covering that. Then I read about it in the other weekly newspaper’s website. Then I saw tweets by three other media outlets. It’s now noon, and my students have reported nothing.
It wasn’t until after the university sent a media release confirming the student’s death that my editors posted anything, and I was furious with them. I still didn’t know that three of my student employees had been in the bar. I learned that Tuesday during a class. Needless to say, that class did not end well — and the students are probably still burning from the berating they received from me.
One student had shot video of the aftermath on her phone. Another had taken photos of the truck in the building. Neither student knew at that time anyone had been hurt, much less would die later from the injuries. Yet, instead of reporting what happened on official student media social media accounts, they instead just went home. They didn’t call editors. They didn’t call other student media staff. It never occurred to them to report it.
When I asked why they didn’t immediately stop being partying college students and become journalists, they simply said it didn’t occur to them. I couldn’t believe that. I repeatedly preach that when you see news happening, you become the reporter. You don’t wait for an editor’s permission or an assignment. You take the initiative. Here was that opportunity, and none of them had done anything.
Keith sets a great example. She was on a real vacation. In Hawaii. With a 5-year-old child in tow. Still, she did what a real journalist does. She puts aside her fears and does the job. Students should learn from that.

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