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WATCH: Former CM Life editors reflect on covering Trump inauguration from U.S. capital, lessons learned


Editor-in-chief Isaac Ritchey asks four former Central Michigan Life editors -- Ben Solis of Gongwer News, Jordyn Hermani of Gongwer News, Kate Carlson of MiBiz and Evan Sasiela of the Ionia Sentinel-Standard -- about their experiences covering the 2016 election, the 2017 presidential inauguration and the events that followed. The content was compiled and published later.

In January 2017, CM Life sent a team to cover Donald Trump's inauguration. Who made up that team? What was the experience like?

Carlson: We didn't necessarily decide to go. We were given the opportunity from (photojournalism) professor Teresa Hernandez, who was able to go with us and take along students from her classes. That's how the whole trip ended up happening. It was thanks to her.

We were like, "If we get this opportunity, we are definitely going to take advantage of it."

Solis: The team was me, Hermani and Carlson -- along with Greg Wickliffe and Shelby Webster. 

How did you divide up the two days of constant commotion while in Washington D.C.?

Hermani: We were all physically at the inauguration. The night before, we decided to divvy up the different angles. I was a man-on-the-street asking supporters of (Trump) what their hopes were and how they were feeling. I remember it being very cold.

Carlson: I was editor-in-chief at the time, so I decided to do an overview story on the inauguration and Trump's speech. I tried to represent a few of the main viewpoints. All of us though, regardless of what we ended up writing, were trying to talk to as many people throughout the day. That was how I was going about it. That's how I went about most of the larger events I covered in college -- just trying to get a decent gauge on the main viewpoints.

Solis: I did a sidebar on the speech story. I didn't write much. I helped out on video and was sort of a wingman.

Carlson: We all put our heads together to condense the speech and everything else into the (larger) story.

Hermani: I remember it being a situation where everyone was just trying to help out. It was "Anything you can do, do."

While you were in Washington D.C., Sasiela was given the task of covering the women's march in Lansing. What was that like?

Sasiela: It was interesting because the marches were happening across the country not only in Washington D.C. There were like 8,000 people (in Lansing). That was when Gov. Gretchen Whitmer was campaigning. She spoke, and there was a lot of CMU students at the event. It was a packed events with people all over the state coming to Lansing. It was a great experience.

After you came back, you decided as editors that you wanted to compile your work into the Monday print edition of CM Life. What was the decision behind it? How do you think that issue impacted campus?

Solis: I don't know how we couldn't. It was such a great opportunity, and we were going to do everything we could for it... The team made a decision that we were going to cover it the best we could. 

We all decided that we were going to see it through. We all thought Hillary Clinton was going to win. That's kind of a horror story at CM Life. (When she didn't win), a lot of things changed on campus. How could we not throw it into one issue? It was an easy decision.

Carlson: I feel so lucky we were able to go. But at the same time, I was thinking that, as a local paper, we should've been telling the story from a local angle. It was just as important to have people stay back and cover a campus angle.

What the atmosphere like following the inauguration and Trump was officially President?

Solis: At first, it was about making sense of everything that happened. A lot of people were convinced that (Trump) wasn't going to win. It was a major shock. Shortly after that, some of his executive orders came down. I remember the travel ban on Muslim countries being very controversial. I remember there being a protest by the Muslim Student Association and other associated groups.  That was kind of the kickoff or jump-off. It ignited student activism. When Trump took office, it ignited a fuse.

Carlson: I feel like we were always covering protests non-stop after (Inauguration). There was always something going on in terms of some kind of activism.

As college-aged voters at the time, do you think the results of the election of 2016 sparked a rise in the participation among college voters this past year?

Hermani: I definitely think it played a role. People saw a lot of different groups working toward groups of non-voter blocks like college students who don't because they are registered at home and live to far away. Michigan's voter laws have changed a decent amount since we graduated from college. For example, absentee ballots.

I am looking at it now, and you didn't see nearly the amount of "go out and vote" messages. Students tuned them out a little bit. I don't think you can say that now. People under the age of 25 or 30 have just as much of a say as any other block of voters.

Carlson: I think a lot of it has to do with the pandemic too though. You can't really compare the two because everyone has been way more online and more tuned in to everything. People had the time because they were at home and working at home scrolling through their news feed. 

Solis, you were actually covering this year's inauguration from home for Gongwer. Could you compare it to what you were able to do in 2017?

Solis: BEing in (D.C.) is a magical experience even if the president is a controversial one like Donald Trump. Despite everything that was being said about the man then and continued throughout his presidency, it was nice being there. It was a historic moment whether it was Clinton or him. The overall tone of his inaugural speech set more of a historic tone. 

You had this guy who was going to be an America-first president. His speech was 50 minutes of nothing but that. 

Yeah. There was something to be missed not being there (this year). It coudln't be more night and day -- the messages that were said in their speeches. One was very singular-minded. The Biden address was overarching, and it touched on different points. His speech looked to a brighter future while also touching on the past. It was easier to transcribe. It is hard to compare. 

In 2016 and 2017, you covered an election, an inauguration and all the protests taking place. How did covering those things help and prepare you for this past year?

Sasiela: It is a lot about being bold. You hear things like "fake news," and you get a thicker skin. Just being able to approach a random person on the street and have a conversation with them -- that's a skill that you can take anywhere, especially during COVID-19.

Hermani: I covered a decent amount of protest this summer for Gongwer. It is almost like college was a trial run for the stuff outside of college. It definitely helped you get a better head on your shoulders. It makes you know, "Hey, you should be in it and covering things, but you should be smart and safe. Know the type of people to look for that are agitated." It was a dry run for being able to do it in your job. I am thankful for having some experiences covering (protests) because there are people who covered a benign, local protest. What we saw in Lansing over the summer, you really can't be prepared for something like that until you're in it. 

Journalists are being threatened by the far-right. As professional journalists, what are your thoughts? Do you think this next administration can cool those tension?

Solis: Here's my thing: this mentality against the press existed before Trump. He just put a stamp on it and made it his calling card. I know people who are liberal-minded who are just as conspiratorial and against mainstream news as the most far-right Trump supporter. This mentality doesn't exist in a vacuum or political position. 

It was obviously been elevated by Trump and his supporters. I don't think it will subside with Biden in the White House. There will be a weird dichotomy of people who expect the press to keep Biden just as accountable. You spend four years of nothing but railing Trump, provoked or not. You have to have the same level of objectivity. That will be the hardest thing these next four months. Can the press be as aggressive with Biden as Trump? That will be something interesting to watch.

Sasiela: I think it is interesting that Press Secretary Jen Psaki will have daily updates Monday through Friday with the press. That should help. It wasn't something that was happening during the Trump administration. The press is going to press. We'll see what happens. I think the Biden administration will at least be more transparent, answer more questions and have a working relationship with the media.

Carlson: The deep platforming and removing Trump was the most meaningful thing about helping a peaceful transition. I feel confident that Biden won't use social media the same way Trump did. Not having a president that abuses social media, will be really helpful in easing tensions.

Hermani: I also think it is important to realize the individuals who are very anti-media aren't just going to go away because Trump has left office. They will still exist. What is going to be the bug thing moving forward si going to be showing the push against any administration. That will dispel the idea of "fake news." Part of it is on the press to know there is a difference between facts and opinion. We should do our part to restore faith in the fourth estate.

What are your hopes for the future? What are things we can work on as journalists, as people, as citizens of the United States?

Carlson: I hope we learned a lot from covering Trump when he first got elected. A lot of mistakes were made by people across the board when it comes to journalism. I hope there is some way we can regain trust and educate students about media literacy.

Hermani: I definitely hope media literacy becomes a thing moving forward. Misinformation existed before the Trump administration, but it was given a microphone. I can't count the number of friends and family members that I see forward me things that are blatantly not true. I'd have to walk through the steps to show them it wasn't true. I'd have to provide resources for them to debunk that.

I hope our conversation regarding how we consume media alters in the future. Again, that might help with deplatforming. We are seeing that happening among major misinformation spreading. That is on all of us for the next four, eight or 12 years -- not that Biden is going to have 12 years in offce.

If we want to move forward from this chapter in American history, we need to be able to explain and call out and be educated on what's going on in our political sphere.

Sasiela: It is important to keep telling the truth. That's what ((journalists) have been doing for the last four years. It is important to be vigilant, thorough and fair. I hope people come around and respect the media for doing the good job and having the information they need.

Solis: Those are all the same points I would have made too. The mission won't change no matter who is in office or what challenges we are going to face. I don't have a dog in the fight beside the truth.

I hope Biden can get the pandemic under control. Not only for our own safety and sanity, but because I want to get back into the field. I want to back to reporting and know that I can talk to someone without hatching a deadly virus. I think that's something that we have sorely missed.