In Campus Protests, Students are Wary of the Media

Victor J. Blue for The Washington Post
Student spokesperson Sueda Polat speaks at a news conference as protesters demonstrate against the war in Gaza at Columbia University in New York on Monday.

NEW YORK – The sign said “Welcome to the People’s University of Palestine.”

But for dozens of journalists looking for protesting students to interview at Columbia University, there would be no entry into the encampment.

Faculty members in yellow vests manning the entrance to the space last week turned reporters away, saying it was the protesters’ choice. Everyone would have to wait for the official student news conference, beginning shortly.

“It’s a little more complex than normal,” said BBC correspondent Sarah Smith, noting that reporters were having to go through student organizers to authorize interviews, “rather than simply being able to wander among them ourselves and speak to who we want.”

Students are wary. After numerous incidents in which campus activists were doxed and harassed, many are reluctant to have their names or faces exposed via news coverage of the protests that have gained national attention. They are attempting to maintain message discipline, to keep focus on their demands and the ongoing suffering of Palestinians. And they are concerned their protests are not being be covered fairly.

At New York University, protest organizers led a crowd through a pledge of community guidelines, including a chanted vow against “taking media interviews if you have not been vetted.” At Yale, protesters asked reporters to leave the encampment if they weren’t participants in the movement for Palestinian liberation. At City College of New York, a protester with a sign reading “death to mainstream media” rolled their eyes at this reporter’s Washington Post press badge.

“We’ve seen love, solidarity and culture bringing together students from all over. We believe it’s a testament to our will, a testament to the beauty of the community we are building here,” Columbia student Sherif Ibrahim said during the protest news conference. “And many mainstream outlets have failed us and misrepresented what is going on.”

Maryam Iqbal, a Barnard student arrested in the first city police raid on Columbia’s encampment, criticized media coverage of the protests that doesn’t also reflect the plight of Palestinians. (The death toll is now above 34,000.)

“We’re not protesting so that people look at our encampment. We’re protesting so that people look at the genocide,” she said in a phone interview, because she was barred from campus. “There’s these big mainstream media outlets that are making it breaking news that Columbia canceled in-person classes, but not breaking news that mass graves were discovered in Gaza.”

Escalating violence from counterprotesters at some campuses has complicated some journalists’ attempts to cover it.

At the University of California at Los Angeles, where counterprotesters reportedly raided a protest encampment early Wednesday, the campus Daily Bruin said that four of its reporters were followed and attacked.

The Bruin reported that “five to six assailants” sprayed the reporters with an irritant and recorded them on their cellphones. At least one reporter went to a hospital for treatment.

Connie Guglielmo, a CNET executive and UCLA graduate who is part of a Bruin alumni network, said she is trying to procure flak jackets for the student reporters.

“It’s really unfortunate that it has come to a place where student journalists who are trying to report on their community and to do it effectively, are being attacked and threatened for just trying to collect information about what’s going on on their campus,” she said.

Others say it has been actions from campus authorities and law enforcement that have done more to hamstring their work.

Joseph Rushmore, an independent documentary photographer, was one of several media members arrested last week at the University of Texas at Austin while covering a campus protest. He told The Post that he’s been to hundreds of protests, including ones that were “very militant, very violent” and that the Austin protest was “small and docile.” At least until the police moved in.

Rushmore said he got trapped between the police line and a group of students, who were pushed up against a building. Police threw him to the ground, knelt on his back, and zip-tied his wrists. Though the charges were dropped, he considered it an attempt to repress journalism.

“Not only is being arrested automatically keep me from doing my job because I can no longer photograph once they had me detained,” he said. “It just makes going out more frightening every time I go.”

At Columbia, the administration limited media access to campus from 2 to 4 p.m. each day. (Earlier efforts to keep journalists off campus drew an oblique rebuke from the university’s prestigious journalism school, which promised on social media to help reporters get access.)

Media access was even more severely curtailed ahead of the New York Police Department’s Tuesday night sweep, which saw hundreds of officers in riot gear march onto campus and arrest dozens of students, including some who had taken over a building and named it in honor of Hind Rajab, the 6-year-old girl whose killing in Gaza seized global attention. They also forced some reporters off campus and ordered others to retreat inside university buildings under threat of arrest, according to a memo from Jelani Cobb, dean of the journalism school. TV news reporters set up outside Columbia’s gates struggled to observe what was happening in real time.

As a reporter from the student radio station WKCR, which gained mass acclaim for its nonstop on-the-scene coverage of the protests, asked on-air as police herded him away: Who will be left to document this if we leave?

In a statement, Ashanti Blaize-Hopkins, president of the Society of Professional Journalists, said that journalists “have a constitutional right to be present at these protests so the public may stay informed and law enforcement agencies and administrators at higher education institutions can be held to account.”

She urged law enforcement “to allow journalists to do their work without interference or threat of arrest and detainment.”

What student protests will look like going forward is an open questions. So, too, is how media will cover them.

Despite her concerns about what she sees as distracted news coverage, Iqbal is glad the protests are dominating national news.

The Barnard student said she wants the issue to become “inescapable.” But she would also prefer that the public turn to students’ Instagram accounts for updates on what’s going on, “as opposed to CNN.”