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Student journalists are covering campus tension over conflict in the Middle East

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

Tensions have been high on U.S. college campuses ever since the October 7 Hamas attack on Israel and the resulting war in Gaza. For student journalists on those campuses, it's a huge story and a tricky one to cover when friends and classmates are so deeply divided. Aubri Juhasz of member station WWNO spoke to student journalists at Tulane University in New Orleans about how it's going.

AUBRI JUHASZ, BYLINE: Hannah Levitan wasn't planning to cover a protest the Thursday before Halloween. She didn't even know people were gathering in support of Palestinians until she stumbled on it.

HANNAH LEVITAN: As a journalist, you're never off the clock. And...

JUHASZ: Yeah.

LEVITAN: So I walked into that rally. And instantly, we kind of realized this is something that people are going to talk about for months to come, years to come, maybe.

JUHASZ: Levitan is a senior at Tulane, a private and highly selective school in New Orleans.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Free, free Palestine.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP #1: Free, free Palestine.

JUHASZ: She says the rally started out peaceful. But as counterprotesters gathered, both sides started hurling insults.

(SOUNDBITE OF CAR HORNS HONKING)

JUHASZ: A video posted to social media and referenced in Levitan's reporting shows a red pickup truck pulling into the middle of the street between the two groups. Someone standing in the bed of the truck holds a lighter up to an Israeli flag. Another person runs up and pulls the flag away. A fight erupts.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: We need help.

JUHASZ: Tulane's police department confirmed the details of what happened at the rally. Three students were assaulted and several people were arrested, none of them students. The story Levitan and her classmates published that day marked a turning point for Tulane's student paper, The Hullabaloo. The conflict in the Middle East has led to demonstrations, backlash and even violence on college campuses, from New York City to Cambridge, Mass., to Ann Arbor, Mich. Even college leaders have come under fire, notably the presidents of Harvard, MIT and the University of Pennsylvania, who faced withering criticism for their testimony on Capitol Hill about antisemitism. For student journalists, what's happening on their campuses is likely the biggest story they've ever covered. Things are especially complicated at Tulane.

LEVITAN: I mean, people literally call it Jew-lane (ph).

JUHASZ: About a third of students at Tulane identify as Jewish according to the school's Hillel chapter. That includes Levitan. The school doesn't track how many students identify as Muslim or any other religion. There is a Muslim student group, but they didn't respond to NPR's requests. Even though many students have personal ties to Israel, opinions on the Israel-Hamas war vary widely. Levitan says not everyone on the pro-Israel side was at the rally for the same reason.

LEVITAN: There are people who are standing on the pro-Israel side, like, against Hamas or against antisemitism, or they're standing on the pro-Israel side because they support Netanyahu. And you don't know unless you speak with them.

JUHASZ: Which is exactly what she and her co-reporter Lindsey Ruhl did for both sides of the protest. They made a point of recording the interviews. Here's Ruhl, then Levitan.

LINDSAY RUHL: We talked to a guy who was sobbing. I mean, it was so - I almost cried, like, interviewing people on both sides.

LEVITAN: It became apparent as we were going through those interviews that these are things that you need to hear because the emotion is something that you can't read in print.

JUHASZ: So they decided to make the paper's first-ever podcast.

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "BREAKING WAVES")

LEVITAN: This is "Breaking Waves," the Tulane Hullabaloo's new podcast.

JUHASZ: It puts students with different opinions side by side, like Anaya Rodgers, Rachel Dan and Gabriel Rudelman.

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "BREAKING WAVES")

ANIAH ROGERS: Israel doesn't need support. They have the U.S. support. Palestinian people, people of color, Muslim people, my people - we need the support that we so desperately haven't gotten yet.

RACHEL DAN: I am actually not pro-Israeli government, but when I saw that this protest and the Instagram behind this protest were posting, honestly, propaganda that had antisemitic tropes, I felt like I needed to stand against that.

GABRIEL RUDELMAN: It's scary to be a Jew right now. We're not safe. Like, if Israel wasn't formed - like, if they took Israel away from us when they tried years ago when they attacked, we would all be dead. None of us would be standing here right now.

JUHASZ: Reaction to the podcast and the paper's other coverage has been generally positive, though Ruhl says some classmates saw her differently after she was seen at the pro-Palestinian demonstration. Not everyone understood her role as a journalist.

RUHL: I was talking to some girl, and she mentioned that many people were texting her because they saw me on one side, and they were hurt and offended that I was on that side. It's kind of frustrating 'cause it's - as a journalist, read my - like, read the story.

JUHASZ: Levitan says social media is making the problem worse, especially college-specific platforms like Fizz. She says it's become a place where misinformation is framed as news, and that's further entrenched students in their views.

LEVITAN: We're 18 to 21. How can you possibly have made up your mind and decided that you are standing on one side and you are unwavering, you are not going to ever consider speaking to people on that other side?

JUHASZ: She says the paper and the university have a chance to bring students together, to listen and learn from one another. It's an opportunity they can't afford to miss. For NPR News, I'm Aubri Juhasz in New Orleans. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Aubri Juhasz
Aubri Juhasz is the education reporter for New Orleans Public Radio. Before coming to New Orleans, she was a producer for National Public Radio’s All Things Considered. She helped lead the show's technology and book coverage and reported her own feature stories, including the surge in cycling deaths in New York City and the decision by some states to offer competitive video gaming to high school students as an extracurricular activity.