Nearly 100 Newhouse students filed voter-focused Election Day stories from polling places in Onondaga County and across the country for Democracy in Action.
Newhouse journalism and photography students spent Election Day at polling place covering voters’ stories for the Democracy in Action (DIA) project.
The idea behind DIA is to take the focus off of the candidates and the campaigns and put it on the voters and their reasons for voting, says DIA co-director and chair of the broadcast and digital journalism (BDJ) department, Chis Tuohey.
“Elections are a huge part of journalism,” says Tuohey. “What makes it even more challenging and exciting is that there will be surprises along the way.”
On a normal class day, students pitch stories in advance and have ample preparation time. But on Election Day, the only things students know ahead of time are which polling place they’re going to and what time to be there.
“It forces them to be assertive, creative and resourceful as reporters,” says Tuohey. “In many cases they are scared to death that they may not come up with a story. [Most] of the time, they do.”
Isabel Tabs, a senior BDJ student, had a rough start at her polling place, Erwin First United Methodist Church in Syracuse.
“Some people in the polling site complained when they saw [a] camera and were very verbally aggressive with me, telling me I needed to leave the site,” she says.
Despite this, Tabs was able to control the situation and successfully finish her story, thanks to assistant teaching professor Jim Osman. A former Washington bureau chief for Media General, Osman prepared his students with responses to possible complications they might run into at polling places.
“I find it my obligation to tell students what they may encounter based on my 25 years of experience covering elections,” says Osman. “Talking about it in class and doing it are two totally different things.”
“I stood my ground and told them the rules and highly emphasized the fact that I would not be filming anyone’s ballot,” says Tabs. “Besides this hurdle, I had a very educational and rewarding experience.”
In a typical year, the almost 100 students participating in DIA would cover Onondaga county and tell stories local to Syracuse. This year, because some students are studying remotely, stories came in from all over the country.
Morgan Tucker, a junior in newspaper and online journalism, covered her local polling place in Hamilton Township, New Jersey. Like Tabs, Tucker was told that she was not allowed to be at the polls. She called adjunct instructor Megan Craig, who told Tucker she had the right to be there as long as she stood 100 feet away from the polling station.
“I went back in and told them, and they responded well,” says Tucker. “My story ended up being pretty wholesome and inspiring because all of the workers were really passionate in their responses. I felt good submitting the story and was proud of myself for turning around the story so fast.”
Craig sees the value of a project like DIA as twofold. “Students gain invaluable insights into life as an on-the-beat reporter, and the community is given the gift of 100 extra reporters telling their stories on what’s sure to be a historic day,” says Craig. “I [was] particularly excited for students to find those small human interest stories that perfectly encapsulate the importance of the day and the importance of voting.”
For Tucker, the best part of the experience was being taken seriously as a reporter by those at the polls, she says.
“It was cool to have people treat me like a real reporter rather than a student,” says Tucker. “I am more confident than I was about approaching strangers, fighting for my First Amendment rights and turning around a story in a day.”
“It is critical for student journalists to take part in Democracy in Action so they know how to cover elections and our democracy when they enter the professional world,” says Osman. “There is nothing more important in the work we do as journalists. We owe viewers the best coverage that is unbiased and informative.”
Students posted stories on the Democracy in Action website at dia-cny.syr.edu. In addition, several of the student stories were published at Syracuse.com.
Adrianne Morales is a senior in the broadcast and digital journalism program at the Newhouse School.