When I first joined The Daily Pennsylvanian in the fall of my first year, I despised speaking on the phone. I learned English as a second language in elementary school and retained a deep fear of being misunderstood. In middle school, I placed calls to a local high school assistant principal to fundraise for a club. The principal never called me back. He eventually told my club leader that he couldn’t understand me in the voicemail. After the incident, I begged my parents to make all doctor and dentist appointments for me. I stopped calling anyone important.
Unfortunately for me, journalists make a lot of phone calls. After speaking with hundreds of sources over my past four years as a DP reporter and news editor, I now view phone interviews as routine. I would put my cell phone on speaker, sit on my bed — or on the floor of a David Rittenhouse Laboratory hallway, or on a secluded couch at Van Pelt Library — and type up notes from the conversation on my laptop. Writing articles became easier and quicker as well. Breaking news articles are particularly formulaic: First, summarize the most important news; second, quote or paraphrase from whatever source we used; third, write a headline, attach a photo, send to the copy editors, and publish.
But the stories are never routine. Even though we write multiple follow-up articles on the same topic, every interview is different. No two people — no matter how similar their backgrounds — have the same perspective. It is both a privilege and a terrible weight to be given these stories to tell. I overcame my hesitation of talking on the phone, but I never detached myself from the emotional burden of my journalism.
The burden is heaviest when reporting on the deaths of our peers and community members. The past few generations of DP reporters and editors have been impacted by these untimely deaths, and I am no different. The news always came in emails — ones from “University Notification” with vague subjects such as “A Message to Penn Students.” Whether I was in class or in my dorm, I would open them, and my stomach would lurch as I read their contents.
I wish others would understand the challenges student reporters experience — both emotional and practical. We shoulder the heaviness of listening to, thinking about, and accurately depicting sensitive issues. Every word we write is scrutinized. After covering the death of Counseling and Psychological Services Director Gregory Eells, we were criticized for our article — by faculty at Penn, by our classmates, by outsiders. Each angry email on the story felt like a punch. I stopped reading them. I cried when someone I knew told me that my words caused them to have a panic attack. It was hard to remind myself that it was the news, not my reporting, that was affecting us all.
For a week after reporting on the death, I didn’t go to class. I was grieving for someone I never personally knew, and I felt like I would never be happy again. I searched online for whether journalists have talked about the emotional difficulties of covering suicide. Few have.
I have heard other harrowing stories as a reporter. In each case, I sat in my room for hours thinking about these accounts. I listened as faculty told me that they might never see their aging parents again because of Trump’s travel ban. I listened as graduate students said their friends could not report sexual harassment for fear of being ostracized from academia. I listened as students complained about Penn’s grueling sexual violence investigation process. In the context of the stories I heard, schoolwork seemed insignificant.
Not many realize the extensive workload placed on student journalists. As reporters, we intersperse interviewing with schoolwork, send administrators and communications staff email after email when they don’t respond, and transcribe hours of interviews per week. As editors, we are in the DP office 40 to 50 hours a week editing stories, responding to sources and correction emails, and dashing off text messages to staff members to ensure we meet the content mandates each night.
As we undertake these tasks, criticisms from sources and readers are rampant. In my term at the DP, I have been threatened with a lawsuit by a Penn professor. Another professor called me a “dirty journalist.” One of my reporters was thoroughly shaken after being yelled at over the phone by an expert source. Disgruntled and uncooperative sources come with the profession, but sources — especially professors — should offer student journalists some leniency. We are all here because we deeply care about the issues we report on, and we are all learning. I hope people can be more tolerant; there’s no need for reporters to come away crying from the interaction.
Despite the disapprovals and the emotional burden, my proudest accomplishments at Penn are the reporting and editing I have done at the DP. When I ran into a graduate student leader in Houston Hall, he told me that Facilities and Real Estate Services began re-examining whether to renovate Samson Place East. He said this change occurred a few days after a story I edited, in which we revealed that the deteriorating conditions of the building forced some students to move to another dorm. As I left Houston Hall afterwards, I ran happily all the way to my next class. For the rest of the week, I smiled a little brighter, chuckled a little louder.
MANLU LIU is a 2020 College graduate who majored in Physics and Biochemistry. She served as a News Editor and the Summer Executive Editor for the 135th board. She was also formerly a Deputy News Editor and a staff reporter. Her email is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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