Protests were a common sight during last month’s RNC and DNC. Penn State journalism students covered events outside and inside the convention centers.
“I am still processing," Stephaine Orme said. "It’s been a couple weeks and I am still breathing and getting things from that experience. But the more I think about it, I am really reminded of just how surreal it all was.”
Stephanie Orme is a third year PhD student majoring in media studies. She went to both of the conventions as an assistant to the class. Orme was in the field helping students with interviewing and editing. She said she didn’t have time to process because she was too busy helping the students find interesting stories.
“They were working for different papers," Orme said. "We had a student doing a South Carolina newspaper. We had a student working for a Pennsylvania paper – so, different states. So a lot of times the editors who they were working with would request stories that had some kind of connection to the state.”
Russ Eshleman led the class. He’s the head of the journalism department at Penn State and reported on politics for The Philadelphia Inquirer for 15 years. Eshleman said working with those local newspapers bore an educational message for students.
“I think it’s a practical lesson," Eshelman said. "The national political writers – they are doing the big stories and they have national contacts. What we could provide was a good, inside knowledge of Pennsylvania.”
The class partnered with McClatchy, a news network that operates daily newspapers in 14 states. The students were credentialed through McClatchy and their work was distributed across the network. Sharing credentials with other reporters meant students weren’t always allowed in the arena. But Emily Kohlman, a junior journalism student, said that wasn’t a problem.
“You could collect the most interesting journalism outside of the arena,” Kohlman said.
Kohlman said she was happiest with her story on millennials upset with the state of politics. Kohlman also said she tried to constantly remind herself to get the full story.
“So I talked to Republicans who are voting for Trump, Republicans who are voting for Hillary, Democrats who are voting for Trump, Democrats who are voting for Hillary – to get the big picture,” Kohlman said.
Orme said creating balanced reporting was an ongoing challenge for students during those two weeks at the conventions.
“The difficulty for them in trying to check their own biases," Orme said, "trying to do their job, to remain objective and neutral as a journalist, especially when you get to these conventions that – they are not about neutrality at all.”
Kohlman faced that challenge head-on.
“I was interviewing a woman," Kohlman said. "Before she said anything, she was like, ‘what paper are you with? I need to know if it’s liberal or conservative.’ And that just speaks to how a lot of people view the media. People will believe what they want to believe, but you want to get the whole story.”
This was the first time most of the students had worked as journalists in a real-world setting. Kohlman said it was difficult but rewarding.
“If you are doing what you love," Kohlman said, "and you know you are making a difference, then what better setting to have that reality check in a political convention especially this election season?”
Eshleman gave his students high marks for their coverage of the conventions.
“I admire the students because I didn’t see any opinions in their stories," Eshleman said. "They really wrote good, solid, fair, unbiased news stories or features.”
Eshleman said he hopes his students can cover the conventions again in four years.