Francesca Maria Lorenzini

617. Palestinian protests covered by student reporter inside Columbia University’s gates

When all eyes were on Columbia University last week as students participating in protests in support of Palestine were being arrested and detained by the New York City Police Department, Francesca Maria Lorenzini and her colleagues at Columbia Journalism School were the only reporters able to provide live updates from inside the campus gates. 

“Considering this was inside the university, I had access to news before some major publications,” says Lorenzini, a graduate student and reporter for City Newsroom, which acts as a local news outlet for students, faculty and the city. “There was no press inside. Students at Columbia, we’re the only outlet inside campus. We provided exclusive coverage of what was happening on campus because other publications were just outside the gates, nobody knew what was happening inside.” 

When police created a barrier around Hamilton Hall, after student protesters went inside and began their demonstration, “we couldn’t get in and see what was happening. We could hear people screaming. I  remember (it sounded) as if they were breaking something inside.” 

As this is her first real experience covering a high-profile protest, Lornezini admits she was a little hesitant at first to step up and dive deep into reporting such a big breaking news story with national attention. 

“I really realized what it’s like to be a journalist 24/7, to edit a video at 1 a.m. This is a really polarizing topic. Of course I have my own idea about this situation, I’m sure you have your own idea. Everybody does. At the same time, we’re reporters, we are not activists. This experience helped me to realize the difference between these two things. It’s also a thing my professor told me the first day. If you cover this, we are not interested in publishing opinions. We’re not interested in your opinion. They didn’t say it this way, but basically, we don’t care what you think.”

Being a student and a reporter did complicate matters initially, for a little while, Lorenzini says. 

“I had to balance my two identities, one of a reporter and one of a student. I was in the middle. Ultimately, when it comes to the perspective, of course I have a student perspective, but in that situation I had to be a reporter, not a student.” 

Columbia Journalism School did provide press passes for City Newsroom and other student journalists from the university while on campus to help identify and distinguish them for police. 

Lorenzini and her colleagues were told “if they see you are press, they’re less likely to arrest you” if police officers saw them filming what was happening. The press passes might also have helped her gain trust among the protesters. 

“My main sources were people inside the encampment, but it was complicated to find sources inside,” Lorenzini says. “Many people didn’t want to talk on the record or they didn’t want to talk at all. There was a high level of distrust toward the media. I think that being a student helped. They were more willing to let me in, maybe talk to me.” 

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