Coaching Journalism Students When a Fellow Student Dies

That title might be a bit misleading.

I think I said “do this” a lot more than I said “consider this” today.

A West Texas A&M student was killed just after midnight today. WT’s student newspaper, The Prairie, reported that a train slammed into her car. The student has many friends on campus and was also a cheerleader, which is a high profile position for a student during football season.

For this group of The Prairie staffers, this has been their first breaking news event of the school year. Though there have been a few student deaths during my tenure at WT, this is the first death this group of student journalists has had to cover. I’ve reported these kinds of stories; they haven’t. My students needed some advice and direction, and they needed it in a hurry.

I spent a long time as a public radio news director, and in that capacity, it was my responsibility to determine how my newsroom would cover such events. I have a different philosophy about my role as a student media adviser, though.

In this position, I see my role truly as an adviser. I make suggestions that are really suggestions, not simply disguised commands (I might slip on this occasionally). I give them choices to consider. I have a reputation for not answering questions directly and for responding with “What do YOU think, and why?”

But today was different.

Assign someone to talk to the local police department, I said. Now get that up on the web. Who’s going to call the railroad company? Somebody call the cheerleader coaches. Here’s an emailed statement from the student body president; get it online. Contact the athletic department and find out if there will be a moment of silence at tonight’s volleyball game. Now let’s rewrite all of this with an update. Send somebody to cover the candlelight vigil tonight. Don’t forget to find out funeral arrangements.

I reverted back to my news director self, but I think that’s okay. I believe this kind of situation needed a heavier hand than usual. After all, it’s my job to help my students learn, and when the newsroom is walking into uncharted territory, I believe that I need to provide the map.

My students now know how to deal with this situation should a similar one occur again, and they’ve handled all of this professionally. I’m very proud of the work they’ve done today under these difficult circumstances.

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