Commonwealth Times Stands Out Amid Protest Coverage
As confrontations between demonstrators and Richmond police continue, the Commonwealth Times -- Virginia Commonwealth University’s student-led newspaper -- has become one of the most trusted media outlets in the city.
Protests erupted throughout the country in late May denouncing police brutality against Black Americans. In Richmond, these protests have reignited demands for Confederate monuments to come down, and have at times been met by violent responses from police.
The CT has had a reporter in the field every night to document these incidents. Their work has drawn accolades from senior journalists and, on social media, from the general public.
"I was out in Richmond getting tear gassed by Richmond Police and staying out until three in the morning," said Eduardo Acevedo, a rising junior and the CT's news editor. "I couldn't have imagined this would happen in a million years."
“...Seeing the police officers moving toward you, I mean it’s something that’s gonna stay with me for a long time and it shook me up a lot.” - Andrew Ringle
Acevedo and the rest of the CT’s staff stopped getting paid for their news coverage in May, after the coronavirus forced them to stop printing physical copies of their paper. The CT quickly pivoted to digital coverage, especially Twitter and live streaming to cover the protests in real time.
“When we talk to protesters, we’re trying to get a full picture as we go,” said Hannah Eason, the CT’s managing editor. “We’re not able to write a full complete story if we’re not there until the end of the protest.”
Seeing the protests through, however, has come with risks. Eason, along with Andrew Ringle, the CT’s executive editor, are two of several local journalists that have been injured by Richmond Police while reporting from within the demonstrations.
Ringle captured an incident on video where he was pepper sprayed numerous times by police, and in the past, he says he has had flashbangs deployed in his direction while stating he’s a member of the press.
“It’s something that I’m not gonna forget for a long time. Just that imagery of seeing the police officers moving toward you, I mean it’s something that’s gonna stay with me for a long time and it shook me up a lot,” he said.
These incidents have not discouraged the CT team from continuing to document the demonstrations, which they now see as their responsibility.
Although the first couple nights of protests saw the looting of stores, and vehicles set on fire, Eason says the CT consciously chose not to label the protesters as “rioters” and “looters.”
“That’s because we were there and we saw that a large majority of people were just marching and were peacefully protesting,” Eason said.
As an editorial decision, the CT has also chosen to hide the faces of those in the crowds, and put the camera away when Confederate statues have been pulled down.
“That might be against this old set of journalistic ethics that we’ve all grown up on,” Ringle said. “But when you have reports of police targeting protesters for being out in the streets, we want to take every precaution we can to make sure that people aren’t getting their faces onto the internet.”
Acevedo says this has made it easier to approach protesters, who oftentimes don’t feel comfortable speaking to the press due to fears of being misrepresented, or in some cases, of being persecuted.
“Journalism is meant to serve the community ... the CT hears that and they go into their coverage with this respect to the community they’re covering.” - Alix Bryan
Alix Bryan, a journalism professor at VCU, says this is an important way in which the CT has managed to build trust with sources.
“Journalism is meant to serve the community, and the community is asking not to show faces, so I really think that the CT hears that and they go into their coverage with this respect to the community they’re covering,” Bryan said.
Bryan has taught Eason and Ringle in the past, and though she says she worries when she sees them in the front lines of the protests, she says she trusts the reporters’ editorial decisions and praises their ability to balance the responsibilities of a newsroom with classes, work and internships.
“When I see them in school the day after production, they’re bleary eyed, but they’re still present and they’re producing great work, and I find that so commendable and kind of rare,” Bryan said.
Allison Bennett Dyche is the director of the VCU Student Media Center, and the CT’s editorial advisor. She hopes the CT’s reporting will inspire others to study journalism and join the paper.
“They’re doing it because they see a need for it and they want to provide that level of news for the community,” Bennett Dyche said. “They’re doing it because they’re passionate about it, and that just, for me, raises it to a whole other level.”
And as the journalists currently at the CT prepare to join the workforce, Acevedo says the last few weeks have been a valuable learning experience.
“It teaches me lessons and it helps me build experience in this world of journalism that I’m hoping people will see as valuable,” Acevedo said.
But it’s also been a time to reflect on the role journalism plays in the community during times of social unrest.
“My entire family on my dad’s side is Hispanic. My family on my mother’s side is Black. So the movement hits right at home as well,” Acevedo said.
As a new generation of young and diverse journalists emerges, Eason says a lot of the old rules and customs are being questioned, but ultimately, a focus on accuracy and truth remains.
“We are just here to tell your story,” Eason said.
*Corrections: An earlier version of this story misspelled Allison Bennett Dyche's name, incorrectly listed March as the last paid month for the Commonwealth Times staff, and mis-credited a photo. These errors have been corrected.