Snowden journalism interns cover COVID-19, protests

On a July afternoon in downtown Portland, just hours after police arrested protesters for damaging the federal courthouse, Bryce Dole donned his face mask and dove into the crowd.

It was the 37th consecutive day of Black Lives Matter protests, and national media outlets were portraying the city as a war zone. Police declared riot after riot, as unmarked vehicles pulled people off the streets.

Dole, a June 2020 graduate of the School of Journalism and Communication and part of the Charles Snowden Program for Excellence in Journalism, was on the streets as a reporting intern at The Oregonian. The Snowden program pairs Oregon students with media outlets throughout the state for 10-week paid summer internships.

The program’s goal isn’t just to give students field experience. It aims to help develop a new generation of ethical and community-minded journalists.

“The focus on journalism ethics is especially important as credible journalists continue to battle misinformation and an increasingly skeptical public,” said Nicole Dahmen, associate professor at the School of Journalism and Communication and co-coordinator of the Snowden program. “The Snowden internship program emphasizes the journalistic responsibilities to seek truth, to be accountable and independent, and to be an active and engaged, community-centered reporter.”

“In the classroom, we stress the importance of the social responsibility of journalists to serve their communities,” said Brent Walth, assistant professor the School of Journalism and Communication, who coordinates the program with Dahmen. “The Snowden program is unmatched its ability to bring that lesson home and help these promising journalists see how their work can make a true difference.”

Living downtown, right in the thick of things, Dole felt strongly about the national media coverage he witnessed.

“They portray what’s happening in Portland like it’s a city under siege, but that’s just not the case,” Dole said. “From what I’ve seen, the protests have not been horrendously violent. People are going out every day because they’re concerned about the way things are going. They’re concerned about civilians getting grabbed and put into unmarked vehicles. There’s nothing right about this.”

Covering the protests for The Oregonian gave Dole a chance to help set the record straight. With his digital recorder in hand, he started asking protesters for their stories.

“It was a beautiful thing to get to know people and talk to them about why they’re there,” he said. “People open up to you about their lives. Getting to talk to people like that … can shift your perspective in a great way.”

As one of 18 university journalists interning at media outlets across the state through the Snowden program, Dole recognizes his first foray into real-world reporting hasn’t exactly been typical. Joining the program amid a global pandemic meant he didn’t fully experience a busy metro newsroom, working remotely instead from his home near Providence Park.

“It’s still just as exciting,” he said. “Obviously, there are a lot of things going on right now. Even though I’m spending 99.99 percent of the time in my room, it’s still just as fast-paced.”

Dole gained a visceral understanding of the power of journalism, especially during a pivotal moment in history.

“Information is power,” he said. “If you feel more informed, you can feel less afraid. But if it’s just numbers and you don’t know anything about them, it increases paranoia,” he added, in reference to the pandemic.

That’s just as important at a small-town weekly as it is at a daily metro newspaper, as journalism senior Ardeshir Tabrizian discovered. An intern at the Malheur Enterprise, a weekly newspaper in Vale, he had to navigate his share of ethical thickets while covering Black Lives Matter protests, concerns about child abuse during the pandemic, and a local effort to recall a city councilor accused of domestic violence.

“It’s a really difficult time to be a reporter,” Tabrizian said. “There’s a lot of distrust, and I think there’s a reason for that distrust at times. Whether that trust can be gained back, I don’t know. Building trust with an audience means adding one pebble at a time, and all it takes is dropping one to tarnish your efforts.”

With only a couple of local newspapers covering the state’s second-largest county by area, there’s plenty of room for misinformation in the rural region near the Idaho border.

“We live in area where a lot of people aren’t complying or understanding the dangers of COVID,” Tabrizian said. “A lot of people are skeptical and have a lot of questions.”

To help educate the community, the Enterprise began inviting readers to submit their questions about the virus. By seeking and publishing answers from experts, the newspaper hopes to clear up common misunderstandings and encourage readers to comply with best practices during the pandemic.

“If we’re not here reporting those facts, who will? It’s given me a sense of how important the role of a reporter is,” he said.

Because the Enterprise staff is so small, Tabrizian was able to report to the newsroom every day and work side by side with professionals, conducting most of his interviews by phone. If a visitor came in, everyone donned their masks.

“I’ve been lucky to get to go into an office,” he said. “My first week here I wrote seven or eight stories. It was a real grind, and I loved it.”

Despite their night-and-day experiences as interns, both Tabrizian and Dole said the program helped them grow in ways they never imagined.

“I think every story you report shifts your perspective a little bit,” Dole said.

The Charles Snowden Program for Excellence in Journalism honors the life and career of Charles Snowden, a longtime editor at the Oregon Journal and The Oregonian. In his memory, the Snowden family established an endowment for the program at the University of Oregon School of Journalism and Communication. The endowment has funded more than 250 internships for students since 1998.

—By Nicole Krueger, School of Journalism and Communication