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How 3 student journalists told the story of campus turmoil

Pro-Palestinian supporters demonstrate in front of Dodd Hall after arrests at UCLA on Monday, May 6.
(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)
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Good morning. It’s Wednesday, May 8. Here’s what you need to know to start your day.

Student journalists have been beaten, harassed and threatened.

After serving this school year as the news editor for the Daily Bruin, UCLA’s independent student-run newspaper, Catherine Hamilton had plans to retire from journalism and pursue law school when she graduates in 2025.

But on the first day of her planned exit, pro-Palestinian protesters set up an encampment in front of Royce Hall — demanding an end to Israel’s war in the Gaza Strip and that UCLA divest from Israel and companies that sell weapons or services to Israel.

Hamilton immediately mobilized and went to the encampment “every single day” to report on the developments, she said.

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Covering the story turned dangerous. Alongside three of her peers from the Daily Bruin, Hamilton was verbally harassed, followed and beaten by pro-Israel counterprotesters last Wednesday when a mob attacked the encampment. As she tried to get away, Hamilton said, she was punched repeatedly in the chest and upper abdomen and sprayed with an irritant. She was briefly hospitalized.

Hamilton’s call to duty typified the work of student journalists, who have often been first to chronicle the turmoil on the campuses they know so well.

We talked to a few of them. Here’s what they had to share.

What stands out about the atmosphere on your campus?

Mohammed Zain Shafi Khan is a junior at USC double-majoring in international relations and journalism and the incoming executive editor of Annenberg Media, a student-led multiplatform news operation .

Annenberg Media has covered the progression of events on campus since Oct. 7, including the cancellation of the valedictorian’s graduation speech, the ensuing protests, the establishment of a pro-Palestinian encampment and the university’s response — which resulted in more than 90 arrests and new security measures such as identification checkpoints.

The protests were “very peaceful,” said Khan, who saw “people doing yoga, watching a movie, having teachings, speakers coming in, exercising their right to free speech and saying chants.”

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The campus is now “militarized,” he said. “You need to stand in long lines, scan your IDs, get your bags checked, pass metal detectors. … And I don’t know what kind of message that sends.”

Campus police confer while posting yards away from the pro-Palestinian camp.
LOS ANGELES, CA - MAY 1, 2024 - Campus police confer while posting yards away from the pro-Palestinian camp on the UCLA campus on May 1, 2024. (Genaro Molina/Los Angeles Times)
(Genaro Molina/Los Angeles Times)

Hamilton said in the aftermath of the UCLA encampment attack, many students feel betrayed by the university administration and fears persist.

“I don’t think any of us expected the events of Tuesday night [April 30], nor the violence with which police forces came in and swept the encampment,” she said. “I think a lot of people are lost. … Everyone’s terrified of the violence and of the potential for arrest.”

Did you face any barriers in reporting?

When law enforcement in riot gear cleared the USC pro-Palestinian camp on Sunday, Khan said he and his colleagues were pushed to a corner at least “100 feet away from the encampment” by the LAPD.

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“It was essentially not acceptable to any of us on the scene, because our job is to report on what we see and what is happening,” Khan said, adding that they moved forward and questioned police officers.

At UCLA, Hamilton said they “were promised [24-hour] access to one of the buildings in the quad where the encampment was, to remain safe,” but they were barred from entering the building, which “specifically became a problem Tuesday and Wednesday when we did not have anywhere safe to immediately retreat to.”

About 10 counterprotesters wearing masks attacked Hamilton and three of her colleagues.

At Cal Poly Humboldt, a small campus in Arcata in Northern California with a long history of collective action, the weeklong occupation of a building on campus ended when school administrators called on police to clear the protest, leading to more than 30 arrests.

Jasmin Shirazian, a journalism major, is a reporter and head copy editor for the Lumberjack, the Cal Poly Humboldt campus newspaper. She said at her campus, like at most universities, many student protesters did not give their names to her and other journalists, fearing for their personal safety or university reprisals. That led to newsroom conversations about granting some demonstrators anonymity.

“I really hope I don’t get anybody into any trouble,” Shirazian said. “I don’t want to get any of my classmates in trouble. I don’t want any of my reporters to be arrested. It was definitely an experience.”

Student journalists also expressed frustration with administrators’ responses.

“The administration was impossible to get ahold of,” Shirazian said.

Khan said he and others tried to contact administrators “on multiple occasions” through official channels; lack of transparency over their responses was also a concern.

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“We have asked for more background on why these decisions are being made. How are they being made?” Khan said. “But nothing has been told to us.”

What did you learn?

As a Muslim journalist, Khan said this experience was a “trial by fire” because he was actively learning on the job while navigating how to report on the issues and be objective while serving his community through journalism.

“I think all of this just sort of reinforced my commitment to journalism,” Khan said. He added that he is “profoundly proud” of all of the student journalists across the country who “are putting, quite literally, their physical and mental health and well-being on the line.”

Shirazian said the experience has “solidified my love for journalism and my appreciation for student media.”

“I’m very proud of my team and El Leñador … the Spanish monthly newspaper,” she said. “We were out there [and] we were applying every skill that we have learned over these few years.”

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Hamilton, who is working on a story about students’ experiences in the encampment, said it’s difficult to be a student journalist “listening to your peers be upset over something they experienced and you’re not able to comfort them.”

Yet, she said, a new spark was ignited within her, even if it meant “bearing this pain.”

“Realizing how many people are relying on student journalists across the country … I think that student journalists who have experienced what we’ve experienced are going to be the next face of journalism and will change it in a way that I think will be very powerful,” Hamilton said.

“I would like to be part of that change.”

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