School papers scramble to cover attacks

School papers scramble to cover attacks

By KATHY MATHESON, Courier-Post Staff

For her first issue as editor in chief of The Whit, the weekly student newspaper at Rowan University, Michelle Wetzel thought things were pretty much under control.

It was Sept. 11, a day before the paper went to press. The big issue on campus? Overcrowded dormitories.

But when terrorists attacked America that morning, killing about 5,600 people in three states, Wetzel's carefully laid plans went out the window.

"We dropped everything," she said. "It felt like all the stories lost their significance."

Wetzel is one of many student journalists at local high schools and universities facing the unexpected challenge of covering one of the biggest stories in American history.

These young reporters have interviewed people personally touched by the tragedy. They have covered fund-raisers and prayer services. And they've printed reaction from their readers.

Immediately after the attacks, Wetzel and two other Whit editors, Jennifer Busa and Bryan Littel, went to Rowan's student center.

Busa interviewed some of the dozens of people gathered around a large-screen TV while Wetzel got reaction from school officials and Littel took pictures.

"I didn't really have time to grieve at all," said Wetzel, a 21-year-old senior from Woodstown, Salem County.

Staffers of Eastside, the student newspaper at Cherry Hill High School East, rushed to distribute a special one-page edition three days after the attacks.

It consisted of a photo of the school's flag at half- staff, a box with the phone numbers of various relief organizations, and an editorial titled "Where Will East Go From Here?" The text, written by senior Lee Norsworthy with input from the paper's staff, makes a plea for the school to "be an example of tolerance - the true enemy of terrorism."

The quick response in getting out the special edition made the staff bond in a way that usually doesn't occur until much later in the year, co-editor Jonathan Tetel said.

"We're so tight because of how we pulled together," said Tetel, a 17-year-old senior.

At Rutgers-Camden, the weekly The Gleaner ( circulation 2,500) was deluged with letters and opinion pieces from students, professors and the surrounding community.

"We've had so many more submissions since the tragedy," said Editor Charlene Lawler, 21, of Mantua. "It's been astounding."

The same was true at Moorestown High School, where there was no shortage of material for the upcoming special edition of The Voice. The eight-page issue will include first-person pieces, artwork, poetry and an interview with the principal.

"A lot of students just wanted to write their personal reactions," said co-editor in chief Julia Kurnik, 17.

But at Rowan, Wetzel said campus response has been muted.

"I don't think they think of us first," she said of Whit readers. "Maybe it's apathy - they don't want to get involved."

Yet they apparently want news, Wetzel said, because most of the 3,000 papers printed each week have been snapped up.

At The Gleaner, there was discussion about whether to print accounts of violence against Arab-Americans elsewhere in the country; some feared that might incite retaliation against campus Muslims.

In the end, Lawler said Gleaner adviser James Moffatt urged the staff to write about Rutgers' Islamic students. One piece, by Commentary Editor Sarah Khan, talked of the unfriendly looks she received on campus during the week of the attacks. She is of Indian-Pakistani descent.

Staffs at both universities have scrambled to make room for articles on the attacks, bumping less-pressing stories to future issues. They say covering these events has made them feel more professional and pushed them to become better at their craft.

"I felt like a real journalist," said the Whit's Busa, "not just a campus reporter."

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Date Published: Saturday, October 6, 2001 - 01:00
Source URL: Courier-Post