Student journalists take on presidential political coverage in Florida
By Danielle Mendocha
Palm Beach Atlantic University
Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton, Ben Carson and Marco Rubio dropped by the neighborhood the other day along with the national and international press.
Providing news coverage were The New York Times, CNN, a Japanese TV network… and journalists from Palm Beach Atlantic University in West Palm Beach, Fla.
These days PBAU journalism students are covering national politics for the campus press and the nearby Cox daily newspaper and building portfolio credits along the way.
“Student portfolios that include only parking and cafeteria woes aren’t the kind of content that typically impresses an employer,” noted PBAU journalism professor Michael Ray Smith, author of “7 Days to a Byline that Pays.” “The dean suggested that PBA’s journalism program get off campus and cover the news, and what better venue than the U.S. presidential race?’
A former writer for publications such at Atlanta Journal, Baltimore Sun, Christianity Today and others, Smith has led journalism programs across the nation for member universities in the Council of Christian Colleges & Universities. His work has helped him become the only CCCU journalism professor to receive the national College Media Advisers Noel Ross Strader Memorial Award for exercising the principle of freedom of the press “at some risk to personal or professional welfare.” Nonetheless, Smith is quick to acknowledge other Christian universities employ equally talented journalism educators who could be eligible for the Strader recognition.
While Smith advises The Beacon student newspaper, journalist-turned-professor Don Piper advises the online web site in addition to building the area’s first sports media program.
So far, PBA’s off-campus strategy is a matter of blending campus news students can’t get anywhere else with news of the area that is of interest to this Christian, liberal-arts community.
“Our program is deliberately focused on getting student journalists reporting off campus,” Smith said, adding that the 3,000-student campus is uniquely situated just two miles from GOP frontrunner Trump’s lavish Mar-A-Lago country club where the billionaire holds frequent press conferences. “It helps students to get a realistic experience of working in news.”
For instance, editors Sierra Darville and Celeste Brown worked at a recent Trump press conference, making videos that they immediately posted online and live tweeted in the whirlwind of competing reporters howling into network cameras.
“It was a lot of fun just being able to work along side real reporters and producers,” said Darville who worked side-by-side with CBS 12 TV reporter Israel Balderas, a PBA adjunct journalism professor. “I received more experience in those few nights than I have in my entire college career, and it was great to have that feeling of accomplishment.”
News editor Celeste Brown agrees, saying, “Live tweeting and working off campus is always surreal because I’ve dreamed about doing journalism for the past four years and I’m finally doing what I love in a way that actually impacts people.”
Brown spent time with the Tampa Bay Times and cut her editorial teeth.
“The work I’ve had the opportunity to take part in is incredibly exciting and rewarding because these experiences not only make me a better journalist, but allow me to see how important the work of a journalist really is,” she said.
On the same night just a few blocks from the School of Communication and Media building on Pembroke Place, a team of Advanced Reporting and Writing students descended on Palm Beach County Convention Center to interview more than 1,000 supporters restive to see former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton rally the vote hours before Florida’s Super Tuesday.
Earlier in the week editors Darville and Brown camped out in PBA’s Rubin Arena to ask candidate Marco Rubio about his prayer life but before they could get to the make-shift green room, Secret Service agents shooed them away. Nonetheless, the two editors managed to live-tweet the evening action to the Palm Beach Post and Digital Editor Kristina Webb of the Palm Beach Post.
Webb later wrote the students saying, “I wanted to send you a quick note of thanks . . . for your Twitter coverage last night. Everyone did a great job.”
National politics isn’t the only off-campus coverage The Beacon student newspaper students and the Readmybeacon.com writers cover. Journalism students cover area businesses, events, particularly ministries, and some government.
This semester journalism students interviewed West Palm Beach Mayor Jeri Muoio, who highlighted city improvement projects and business openings on fashionable Clematis Street and CityPlace. The students covered the opening of a Memorial Fountain dedication on the island of Palm Beach and met with writers such as author Valerie Ramsey who is starting a high-end magazine in the area.
During the 2014-2015 academic year more than 20 writers talked to journalism students about the business of journalism today. In turn, students covered city commissioners, visited the police department and studied regional history at the Historical Society of Palm Beach County, but covering national politics has its appeal.
“Out in the professional field, there won’t be hundreds of students that I know and talk to everyday,” said journalism student Peter Amirata, who covered a Trump press conference. “Covering events off campus is more challenging, but something that is very useful at the undergraduate level.”
Multimedia editor Katie Forsythe agrees.
“It’s a very high energy and exciting environment to witness political history being made right in front of your eyes,” said Forsythe. “For me, the funniest part was definitely seeing so many people who could not even vote or contribute to the political sphere in a very real way—non-citizens or people not of voting age—be so adamant about their candidate!”
For journalist Aaron Broghamer, living the news in real time is novel.
“You don’t have to wait for a reporter to tell you what’s happening because you are the reporter,” he said.
The result: Some students find the immersion daunting; others such as bilingual journalist Normarie Naim find it exhilarating. A wife and mother of three, Naim is an intern at a Telemundo TV station in Orlando where she lives. She drives nearly three hours one way to take classes.
“Live-tweeting is what we do at Telemundo,” she said. “Covering the Hilary Clinton rally was an amazing experience.”
Danielle Mendocha is a journalism student who prepared this article on assignment for ReadmyBeacon.com, an award-winning web site.