Letter from Dean Coll on Recent Events | Columbia Journalism School
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Letter from Dean Coll on Recent Events

Dear J-School Alumni,

These are extraordinary times, and while many of us relish big stories, the strain and challenge of these last weeks and months has stretched many of us to the limit. I write in support of you on behalf of all our faculty and staff, and also in appreciation of the great work many of our alumni have done under pressure in recent days. 

Our alums, just out of school or long in the field — thousands of working journalists around the world — are committed to fact-gathering, evidence, truth and accountability. We need you more than ever. Yet we know that journalists working in the U.S. today face hate, openly expressed racism and threats of violence to a degree unfamiliar in modern times. The rhetorical and physical assaults on journalists at the Capitol on January 6 were shocking but sadly predictable, the inevitable outcome of relentless lies and demonization of the press by President Donald Trump and his allies and supporters, including violent white nationalist extremists with roots in America that go far back.

After Twitter shut down President Trump’s account on January 8, citing “risk of further incitement of violence,” the Press Freedom Tracker, a non-partisan website that brings together press freedom research from two dozen groups (and a partner of Columbia Journalism Review), put out a report saying the President had sent more than 2,500 tweets disparaging the media or individual journalists since he announced his presidential campaign. The report summarizes his most frequent targets, the language he used, and other findings. Thanks to Professor Emeritus Ann Cooper for keeping us up to date with this work.

The Tracker also documented election-related attacks on journalists since last fall. At the Capitol on January 6, the organization documented five arrests or detentions of journalists and more than a dozen assaults. Journalists can use this link to report a violation. 

Despite this atmosphere, our alumni remained on the scene, documented the riot, interviewed participants and produced memorable and influential stories. If I called out all of the alums who worked intrepidly during the Capitol mayhem, this already long letter would become a yearbook, but I thought you would appreciate a few examples: 

Rhonda Colvin '14, Washington Post, who was reporting from the Capitol on January 6, posted this piece about what it was like sheltering in the basement as the building was under siege. Ali Zaslav '19, CNN, reported live as it was overrun, senators were escorted to safety and afterwards captured images of ransacked congressional offices. Alex Daugherty '16, Miami Herald, reported live from the House Press Gallery, and after he and some lawmakers watching from there were evacuated to safety. Ines de La Cuétara ‘13, ABC News, reported live as a man was loaded into an ambulance. Amy Wang ‘09, Washington Post, covered lawmakers possibly being exposed to Covid during the assault on the Capitol 

Emmanuel Felton '13, Buzzfeed, was not at the Capitol, but wrote an impactful story about the Capitol Police: Black Police Officers Describe the Racist Attacks They Faced As They Protected the Capitol. Dan Flatley '17, Bloomberg, reported live from the Capitol, and since then on Republicans’ reactions. Katie Shepherd '16 and Antonia Noori Farzan '16 Andrea Salcedo '19, Jaclyn Peiser ‘15, Tim Bella ‘11 (Morning Mix deputy editor) on the Morning Mix team at the Washington Post are all breaking news, as is Paulina Villegas, ‘10, who wrote for the paper how retired military who took part in the riot could be tried in military courts.

We know that risks of violence around the inauguration remain, even if authorities are much more alert and, we can hope, better prepared. We want you to stay safe and we know that not all of our alums doing important work have the backing of well-resourced news organizations. 

On Friday, January 15, from noon to 1 p.m. EST the J-School’s Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma is holding an event open to all alumni, “Covering Civil Unrest,” a free training webinar for reporters, editors, photographers and other news professionals covering riots and civil unrest. It will focus on risk assessment and situational awareness as well as practical strategies and tactics for preparing to cover civil disturbances. Register here

These are times of strife and instability, but the struggle is not one-sided. Antidemocratic populists today challenge democracies worldwide, yet many people and institutions that seek to preserve and improve democracy stand against them. 

Journalists play a dual role in this struggle. We report, photograph, interview, investigate and document events without fear or favor. We are also activists on behalf of the principles — including free speech— that protect a free press. In these times, we must carry out our professional work while defending journalism and the very idea of truth against committed enemies, thinking hard about how to succeed without compromising our values. 

Our alumni are the J-School in so many important ways. Our faculty and staff are enormously proud of the work you do. We stand ready to support you in every way we can.

 

Steve

Dean of Columbia Journalism School and Henry R. Luce Professor of Journalism