How student journalism saved me during the COVID-19 crisis

The only thing that helped me get through my campus closing? Covering it.

By Dana Gerber, News Editor

On Friday, March 13, Emerson College announced it would close its residence halls, effectively kicking us all out of our dorms. Across campus, students cried, raided The Max, and frantically texted their parents. Only the night before, in 172 Tremont, my colleagues and I stayed up until the wee hours publishing what would become the semester’s last full print edition of our college newspaper, The Berkeley Beacon. 

We’d holed up in the newsroom (and then our editor in chief’s dorm room) from Wednesday night at 6 p.m. until Thursday morning at 3 a.m., filling a whiteboard with what we did and didn’t know about campus jobs, extracurriculars, and the transition to online classes. We may have had more answers than the rest of the student body that night, but we were all still full of questions. And underneath them was this unspoken one: What did this mean for us?  

“Loose room tonight,” joked a colleague, something he says whenever the newsroom devolved into controlled chaos. We laughed about Zoom and which professors we thought would show up in pajamas. Our Slack erupted every five minutes with a new crisis to attend to. Our editor in chief was pacing the room, on the phone with the college president. We made coffee, then made more. We talked with every administrator we could reach, interrupted students as they packed up their dorm rooms to photograph them touching elbows instead of hugging goodbye, and quickly set up a live-updates page on our website to compile all the information. 

Liberal arts millennials that we are, we joked our way through that night and the following ones. But we were still dancing around the questions: How would we finish our classes? How would we continue to provide coverage of this crisis when we were being thrown out of our dorms? It was our job to be a proxy for the student body, to provide navigation in utterly uncharted waters. But what were we supposed to do when we were drowning, too?

And we weren’t alone. Student journalists across the country covered their closing campuses, and continue to do so. The Harvard Crimson began publishing daily editorials after the announcement that their dorms were closing, The Daily Northwestern has tracked community members confirmed as infected with the coronavirus, and The Daily of the University of Washington ran an obituary for a professor there who died from the virus. Many papers, like ours, have set up live trackers, amassing dozens of stories from the frontlines even after we’d been evacuated. Freedom of the press during a quarantine can be difficult to maintain, especially for kids with no press passes.

“We’re going to go home,” I heard our editor say quietly that night, before it was announced that dorms were closing. 

“We are?” I asked.

“I don’t know,” he admitted, sighing. I’d never heard him waver before. But it was true—none of us knew, even though it was our job to know. 

As we wrote story after story—about how players from the NBA’s Utah Jazz practiced in our gym days before testing positive for the virus, about international students left with no place to go, about the cancellation of our college’s annual awards show—it became even clearer how few answers we had. Administrators gave us TBDs; many of our parents gave us the same. 

COVID-19 has taken all the certainty out of my personal and professional life. The quest for certainty is why I decided to pursue journalism in the first place. If knowledge is power, that may be why a sense of powerlessness has pervaded our nation—including our newsrooms. News begins with a question, and there are sources to talk to and experts to cite and data to pull from. This situation, however, is different. The sources are in the dark. The experts can’t be definitive. The data are still nascent. And the questions are piling up faster than we can ask them. But perhaps the unyielding perseverance in continuing to ask them can buoy me—and my colleagues—through this uncertainty. 

It may seem counterintuitive, but latching onto the unknowns through journalism has been the only thing to keep me sane through a week of unpredictable tumult. Calling administrators, transcribing interviews, and crafting copy has instilled a sense of normalcy in a world gone rogue. More than that, however, the structure and collaboration of this form of storytelling has given me hope that there is a way out of this crisis. The search for answers—even if there are few, right now—has kept me grounded. 

The questions of the COVID-19 pandemic, unfortunately, are far from answered. We still don’t know when a vaccine will become available, when—or if—businesses will reopen, or how high the death toll will rise. On and off campus, inside and outside of newsrooms, the ratio of questions to answers is frustrating and anxiety-provoking. But the search for information, however fruitless it seems, has centered me. There is no normal right now, but we did what we always did on Wednesday nights, delirious in the newsroom after a decline-to-comment and one too many cups of coffee: We tried to figure it out. We will keep asking questions. We will cling to the uncertainty out of hope that we can chip away at it. 

Like everybody else, I do not yet know what COVID-19 means for me. I do not know if I will be able to return to college in the fall. I don’t know if I will see my fellow editors again, as many of them are set to graduate this semester. I don’t even know what the future of our newspaper is. However, if there’s one thing I do know, it’s that I am in fierce control of my determination to find out.