Over the last month, students across the nation set up encampments on their campuses, protesting Israeli assaults and genocide in Gaza. As students demanded their universities divest from weapons manufacturers and other companies linked to the Israeli military, they were met with violence, both from police and counter protestors.

After USC canceled its 2024 valedictorian Asna Tabassum’s commencement speech, student journalists found themselves uniquely positioned to cover a national news story. Multimedia student journalist Makayla Idelburg said that she felt “responsible for updating the world on what was happening with these protests.”

Still in college and early in his career, Mohammed Zain Shafi Khan, the incoming executive editor of Annenberg Media, described the experience of covering the historic moment as a “trial by fire.”

With the large amount of media coverage and national attention on the student encampments on LA campuses, LA Public Press wanted to provide space for student journalists to share their perspectives on covering protests on their campus.

Protestors on campus. (Henry Kofman / Daily Trojan)

Name: Mohammed Zain Shafi Khan
Year and major: Rising senior, international relations and journalism
Affiliation: The incoming executive editor for Annenberg Media, a multi-platform student-run newsroom, the second-largest in Los Angeles

We’ve witnessed a significant and forceful LAPD as well as DPS presence on campus. The protests have remained peaceful, with the only aggression coming from the administration and law enforcement. Freedom of speech has been reduced to a mere joke on campus. From the valedictorian Asna Tabassum being barred from speaking at commencement, to the latest restriction on exercising our constitutionally guaranteed right, to a small patch of grass designated as a “free speech area.” As student journalists, we demand more transparency from the administration, yet we’ve received none. On two separate occasions, I requested interviews with president Folt for greater transparency and engagement with student media, but these requests have been met with silence.

We’ve observed three instances of heavy police activity, the most recent of which heavily suppressed and even harassed student media. An officer aggressively approached us, attempting to push me and my colleagues aside, warning, “If you keep mouthing off, we will treat you the same way as the protestors.” It’s worth noting that most of us journalists on the ground are people of color in vulnerable positions, especially given the LAPD’s racist nature. At present, the campus is heavily militarized with checkpoints, metal detectors, and bag checks in place.

It’s terrifying. We’ve taken journalism classes, but nothing could prepare us for this. It’s been like a trial by fire. Many of us at Annenberg Media and the Daily Trojan who’ve been there night after night are journalists second and students first. Despite final projects, we’re still out there because we’ve come to recognize the crucial importance of our roles, especially now, and particularly at USC, where access to outside media is essentially cut off. I’m endlessly proud of both of these teams as well as student journalists throughout the country. We see you.

Name: Makayla Idelburg
Year and major: Rising senior, journalism with a minor in psychology
Affiliation: Multimedia journalist for Annenberg Media

Covering the encampments at USC was a major moment for me as a journalist, and honestly, it was terrifying. Because outside media wasn’t allowed on campus, we were responsible for updating the world on what was happening with these protests. I was always worried about missing important information and making sure I followed guidelines and put out quality stories.

It was interesting to see how a global conflict can divide a student body and what lengths each side will go to to make a statement. Students would join the encampment throughout the day and take shifts as security through the night. There was never a time where the entrances of the encampment weren’t guarded. There was a section for tents, and there was a communal area where they had a library, hosted teach-ins, ate, etc. At night, campus security would routinely set up a perimeter around the encampment. They would occasionally flash their high-beams on the demonstrators or just stand around. Counter-protesters would come at one in the morning and stay for a couple hours. They played loud music, projected graphic films of the Israel-Hamas conflict, and taunted the pro-Palestinian demonstrators. The demonstrations would respond with playing loud music of their own to drown them out.

It was overwhelming to say the least. I don’t think people realize that while we were journalists, we were also full-time students who were going through finals like everyone else. I would be out there from seven at night to three in the morning, get four hours of sleep, then go to class the next day. But regardless, I prioritized what was important and that was getting the story even if that meant losing sleep or being threatened to be arrested by LAPD for trying to do my job.

Name: Henry Kofman
Year and major: Rising sophomore, cinema and media studies
Affiliation: Spring 2024 deputy news photo editor for the Daily Trojan

It has been a unique experience to be a student photojournalist at this time and with everything going on at USC. I hadn’t had much experience in photojournalism and it was a very unique way to be thrown into things. As a student, I had to make sure I was balancing my classes and finals while also giving a full holistic and journalistic view of the events.

After the initial encampment and subsequent Los Angeles Police Department actions on April 24, USC decided to completely close its campus to all non-students or faculty, so the Daily Trojan and Annenberg Media were the only outlets on the ground. Because of this, we had more eyes on our photos and reporting than ever before. We also had mainstream media paying attention to us in a new way and we were finally getting more recognition and attention from them. Overall, the whole thing has been a very educational experience, and to be able to use photography to capture and focus on an unprecedented time in USC history.

Mariah is a journalist who can be found at one of LA's many libraries, and supporting local musicians and street vendors.

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