As national stories break on campus, Ohio State student journalists step up

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As news alerts began pouring into his phone last week, Colin Gay knew he had to get out from behind the concession stand. College football journalist Brett McMurphy was reporting that Ohio State coach Urban Meyer knew about domestic violence allegations against one of his assistants, and Gay, the sports editor at Ohio State’s student newspaper, The Lantern, had to write. He went to his supervisor at the Columbus, Ohio, movie theater where he had taken a summer job, and said he had to end his shift early. “I told my boss ‘I need to leave, right now,’” Gay says. “I knew I needed to get this story up because this is way bigger than me, way bigger than my minimum-wage summer job. This is information that people need to know.”

Gay is one of a handful of Ohio State student journalists who have found themselves in the middle of two major national stories this summer. The one shaking the college football world at the moment involves allegations of domestic abuse by former Buckeyes assistant coach Zach Smith, which has resulted in Meyer, one of the most successful coaches in modern history, being placed on administrative leave while the school investigates what he knew, and when. The other deals with sexual misconduct by Richard Strauss, a former wrestling team doctor, who is accused of assaulting more than 100 students during a tenure with the university that lasted decades, and has involved questions about what Ohio Representative Jim Jordan knew of Strauss’s behavior when he served as an assistant wrestling coach in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

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“This summer has been sort of a trial by fire,” says Lantern Editor in Chief Edward Sutelan, a rising senior at the university. With a summertime staff of half a dozen reporter/editors, The Lantern has published a steady stream of pieces chronicling two stories that cross the boundaries of sports and touch on national conversations about sexual abuse, domestic violence, and institutional negligence. In Columbus, summer is usually a time to look ahead to Ohio State football, but over the past two months, space usually devoted to preseason previews has been filled with stories on police reports and internal investigations.

Even for experienced journalists, there are few issues more delicate to report on than sexual abuse and domestic violence, and the staff at The Lantern says they understand the unique position in which they’ve been placed. They’ve spent the past couple of months digging through police reports, digesting class action lawsuits and, most challengingly, learning to deal with sensitive subjects. “The gravity of these stories was something that was brand new to me,” Gay says. “I’ve had to ask a lot of questions about how to approach certain story ideas.”

The day before he rushed from the movie theater, Gay published a piece on male victims of sexual assault in which he interviewed one of the men who says Stauss abused him. (Strauss died by suicide in 2005). “That was the most difficult story I’ve ever had to write, to approach a topic that’s hard to ask about.”

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This summer has been sort of a trial by fire.

 

As the student journalists have reported on these issues, they’ve leaned on faculty advisor Spencer Hunt and communications professor Nicole Kraft, who specializes in media law and ethics. Kraft says that one message she’s stressed is that the national interest and sensitive nature of the stories means they don’t have the luxury of thinking like student journalists. “Unfortunately—as is the case with many really important stories—you don’t have the latitude of learning on the job. [They] can’t make what you might consider to be standard student mistakes,” she says. “They’re very aware of the responsibility they have to readers, for the reach that their stories have.”

Reporters at The Lantern are accustomed to competing with professional journalists from ESPN and local outlets like The Columbus Dispatch after football games. But the explosive nature of the Strauss and Smith stories has brought journalists from across the country to campus. Sutelan acknowledges that his team doesn’t always have the resources or experience to break news the way some of their more seasoned competitors do, so Lantern staffers have worked to find their own niche. “We’re doing whatever we can to try to find these different angles that—while they may not necessarily be ground-breaking—they provide another aspect of the story that might not be getting mainstream attention,” he says.

An example of that approach is campus editor Zach Varda’s piece on a visit to campus by Brenda Tracy, a well-known activist who works to bring awareness to sexual assault and accountability at universities. Her talk to Ohio State’s football and basketball teams was scheduled in advance, but happened to fall the same week that news of the allegations against Smith broke. Though other outlets mentioned her visit, Varda got the first comment from Tracy, in which she condemned Meyer’s reaction to the charges.

Varda says that by virtue of being a constant, independent presence on campus (The Lantern receives no funding from the university, and is supported by advertising revenue), he hopes the paper will be able to provide sustained coverage and necessary context for the stories. “These are going to be the biggest things that we cover all year, whereas the national news will cover it the day it breaks but then they’ll have to move on,” he says. “We can take the time to go in depth and find the follow-up stories that a national reporter might not have time to do.”

As the summer has worn on, Lantern staffers have grown more confident in their reporting. In June, they relied on oversight from professors on particularly sensitive stories. “Progressively, as the summer has gone along, we’ve felt more comfortable with publishing these stories without having [the advisors] read them over,” Sutelan says.

Hunt, the faculty advisor, says the student journalists have risen to the challenge. “I’m grateful that they’ve recognized how big [these stories are],” he says. “Their willingness to go into places where they don’t know, necessarily at first, how to do it, I really appreciate that. As a student journalist, that’s what you’re looking to do—to expand your horizons, to gain that experience that hopefully develops into a career—and there’s really no other way to it.”

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Pete Vernon is a CJR staff writer. Follow him on Twitter @ByPeteVernon.