Leading college journalists talk about how COVID-19 has changed their newsrooms

Last week, the Student Press Law Center and PEN America’s Campus Free Speech Program hosted an online forum with college journalists who discussed the challenges they are facing because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

SPLC Senior Legal Counsel Mike Hiestand opened the conversation by talking about legal trends, including fielding more questions than usual about access issues via SPLC's legal hotline, and a jump in requests to  SPLC's Virtual Speakers Bureau. He said more than two-thirds of states have ordered state of emergency modifications to their Freedom of Information Act laws, and some states have changed the amount of time records holders have to respond to FOIA requests. Most states have also waived in-person meeting requirements, and are requiring public meetings be accessible via video conferencing platforms instead.

In March 2020, the Department of Education released new Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act guidelines that give schools more leeway to disclose details about student health information.

SPLC's Coronavirus Toolkit has resources for student newsrooms that include a letter reminding administrators that student media is an "essential service" as defined by federal guidelines.

The students spoke on a variety of struggles, everything from managing a crisis as a new leader, to how to cover xenophobia during the crisis, to overcoming the loss of print advertising. Here are some tips:
  • Have section heads ask university spokespeople and health officials questions for all the stories they're overseeing. It decreases the workload on that spokesperson and increases your chances of a timely response.
  • Think creatively about how photographers and print designers can be best utilized in the current circumstances: photo essays about life in isolation, illustrations for stories, archiving past work or updating your website.
  • Create a new section of your website highlighting COVID-19 coverage.
  • File public records requests and understand you may have to wait longer or fight harder to get those records.
  • Call attention to inconsistent messaging, lack of transparency or other issues from your school. Your fellow students have a right to know how the college is handling this crisis.
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Student journalists provide an essential service, telling the story of their time to their 55 million classmates who are also out of school. Also essential is the legal expertise and other support SPLC provides. Along with our heavily used Coronavirus Toolkit for student news organizations, SPLC is giving student journalists the help they desperately need by: Show your support for SPLC with a donation of $17. Your donations help us to continue this crucial work.
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Q: One of my classmates, a high school junior, has written a column about being tested for COVID19. It’s well-written and informative. She talked it over with her parents and wants to use her name. Are there any problems with this or should she write anonymously?  Any HIPAA issues?

There is no problem with the student writing this under her own name, particularly if she's discussed the issue with her parents. Unlike something like an STD test, for example -- which can carry a stigma in certain situations -- there's nothing  embarrassing or "shameful" about being tested for COVID19. Indeed, I think getting tested if one believes they've been exposed is the honorable and brave thing to do these days.

If you wanted to be super safe, you could have her sign a consent form.

There are no HIPAA issues.

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