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Baruch Journalism Students Persevere to Produce Special Report on Southwest Border during the 2020 Elections



Students in a political reporting class at the Weissman School of Arts and Sciences remotely published an investigative special report on the Southwest border, near the location of this wall separating Mexico and the U.S., which runs through a New Mexico city located just west of El Paso, Texas. Students in a political reporting class at the Weissman School of Arts and Sciences remotely published an investigative special report on the Southwest border, near the location of this wall separating Mexico and the U.S., which runs through a New Mexico city located just west of El Paso, Texas.
(Photo by Prof. Andrea Gabor)

Nearly 2,000 miles from scores of make-or-break interviews, a reporting trip cancelled due to COVID-19, and an unexpected pivot to distance learning did not dampen the determination of students in the journalism department’s political reporting class at the Weissman School of Arts and Sciences.

This spring, the undergraduates overcame these unforeseen, disruptive challenges to finalize a semester-long, team effort that examines how issues affecting the U.S.-Mexico border would play out during the 2020 elections.

For their class Covering the Border During the 2020 Elections, the students remotely produced “The Border Interrupted: Politics and the Pandemic Scramble Life Along the El Paso-Juarez Divide.” The package includes more than a dozen substantive articles—covering politics, community, immigration, education, business, and the pandemic at the border—and is published in the Baruch student magazine Dollars & Sense.

A Must-Read Special Report: The Border Interrupted: Politics and the Pandemic Scramble Life Along the El Paso-Juarez Divide

“We are so proud to share this inspiring reporting project that our Baruch journalism students produced from their homes—nearly 2, 000 miles away from their topic and interviews—during this difficult time,” said Professor Andrea Gabor, who co-teaches the class with Professor Vera Haller. “This class was modeled after the 2018 political reporting trip to rural Maine that resulted in two national journalism awards for Baruch students’ work.”

Journalist Students: Chase the Story

According to Gabor, students were only weeks away from traveling to Texas and New Mexico for a carefully planned eight days of intensive reporting, when they learned that The City University of New York campuses were being closed due to COVID-19 concerns, and all classes would transition to distance learning.

According to Gabor, the students had spent the first half of the semester preparing for the trip by researching critical border-related issues that are likely to influence the 2020 elections.

“Despite New York State’s ‘stay-at-home’ mandate, we were determined to make the most of students’ work and to salvage the project by continuing our reporting online. Fortunately, the sources we had lined up at the border agreed to be interviewed by our students via teleconferencing, phone calls, and emails from their home base in New York,” explained Gabor. “The students were excited and energized to chase this important story, no matter the circumstances.”

“During the darkest weeks of April, our students spoke via Zoom, sometimes in pairs or individually and on two occasions, as a full class, to politicians, immigration lawyers, border police agents, community and religious leaders, academics and writers in the El Paso area. They solicited photos from the people they interviewed and mined social media for content related to their stories.”

From their sources, Covering the Border During the 2020 Elections took shape as students learned first-hand about rural schools where kids lack Wi-Fi, why Texas is considered “No-Vote” state, how U.S. Border Patrol agents often grapple with conflicting identities, and much more.

Gabor added, “Our students showed incredible resilience and grit throughout the process. For many of them, working on such a meaningful, real-world project was a bright spot during the dark days of the pandemic.”

“I was lucky to be a part of such an amazing project, especially during college.”

Jose Nieves Herrera (’21), part of Baruch’s SEEK Program who is majoring in journalism, signed up for this class because of its political and hands-on nature. 

“I wanted to experience the intricacies of reporting, writing, and editing a publishable article, and that’s exactly what I got to do,” Nieves Herrera said. “I learned how to use research to draft the questions necessary to produce cohesive articles, and that it’s okay to not know everything about the subject you’re writing about. That’s part of what it means to be a journalist.”

Catherine Chojnowski (’20) described an important aspect of reporting she learned during the class. “Journalism is a very hands-on and on-the-ground career,” she explained. ”However, this experience has shown me the ways in which journalists can adapt to situations, such as reporting while being in quarantine.”

For Ayse Kelce (’22), who is double majoring in journalism and political science and double minoring in law and policy, and English, this was her first time reporting on communities outside New York City and her hometown Istanbul, Turkey.

Kelce was concerned about writing a feature story on colonias, which are unincorporated neighborhoods along the southern border, and accurately portraying the struggles of these communities without being there and seeing how people live.

“I asked as many questions I could about people’s daily lives in order to portray the communities I was reporting on transparently,” Kelce stated. “I wanted to make sure that, as an outsider, I understood what was going on in these places beyond our research. That is why it was crucial for me to ask the right questions to my interviewees.”

Kelce believes participating in this project will be beneficial for her career since she aspires to report on international conflicts and work on investigative assignments as a professional journalist.

“This project helped me gain hands-on experience about reporting on a community I had very little information about, which is a crucial skill in journalism,” Kelce said. “The existence of this class was a huge opportunity for students who hope to pursue a career in journalism. I was amazed by how well prepared the curriculum was, and even though we did not have the chance to go on the trip, we were still able to write in-depth stories about the issues around the border.

“I was lucky to be a part of such an amazing project, especially during college.”

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(Story published on 7/1/20)

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