By: Elliott Almond
Ball State University journalism professor Ryan Sparrow wanted to inspire students who had lost their awe of the profession because of the declining state of newspapers. His solution: send them to cover the Olympics without official media credentials.
“Let’s just go and see if we can find some stories,” Sparrow said of a group of 40 from the Muncie, Ind. school that went to the 2012 Summer Olympics in London.
The school launched BSU at the Games, a dedicated student-run Olympic website and freelance news agency. Students produced about 250 multimedia stories, some that appeared in USA Today, the Chicago Tribune and the Huffington Post.
The response was overwhelmingly positive as students forgot they were participating in an educational exercise and felt like bona fide journalists.
“We may have hit on something really big,” Sparrow said.
Now BSU at the Games plans to have 22 students covering the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia. It also will have 10 graphic designers working at the Chicago Tribune headquarters in a concerted effort home and abroad that creates a real-life experience not found in the classroom.
Boston University and Penn State University also sent student journalists to the London Games but have no plans to continue those programs in Sochi. Also, University of Iowa students worked for the official Olympic News Service at the 2008 Summer Games in Beijing in what journalism professor Judy Polumbaum described as a life-changing experience for some of them. Ball State, however, is attempting to establish itself as a leader in boots-on-the-ground experiences for journalism students. The timing, Sparrow says, has been ideal.
With fewer regional newspapers sending reporters and photographers to the Olympics because of cost cutting, the Ball State students have offered to provide free content. The group plans to produce stories, photos, videos and graphics from Sochi and Chicago.
As in London, the students must pay for the Sochi trip. They plan to stay on cruise ships near the Olympic venues located on the Black Sea coastline.
The students also will not have official International Olympic Committee credentials. As a result, they won’t share the same access as the thousands of credentialed journalists in Sochi to cover the 17-day event.
But the students have been preparing for such obstacles by fostering relationships with potential U.S. Olympians and following them closely on social media platforms. While they hope to get single-day press passes for some events, the Ball State contingent will cast its journalistic eye on stories beyond the Olympic venues, such as stories on Russian culture and Olympic culture. Two Russian-speaking students will serve as translators while also doing their own reporting.
While the lack of access initially concerned Sparrow, students in London proved resourceful.
“We were smart just knowing you could do a lot of coverage without credentials,” Sparrow said. “There are a lot of stories out there.”