Protestors march behind a banner that reads “End The Siege On Gaza” in Hollywood, California in August 2014 (Photo Credit: iStock).

University journalism students have been the primary documentarians of campus protests for Gaza, and the resulting crackdowns nationwide. In this episode of Twice as Good, Sara and Mitra sit with Zain Shafi Khan, journalist and leader from University of Southern California’s Annenberg Media. Sara and Mitra connect with Zain over his mission to capture this moment with integrity and reflect on the stories that swept their campuses as young journalists.

As professional media has been shut out of campuses, student journalists are keenly aware of the import of their reporting. 

“I wouldn’t say I’m glad to have covered this only because this shouldn’t be happening in the first place,” Khan describes. “Like this is a sad time, but I am glad, in that I was able to do my part… disseminating information. As USC was blocked off from all of media, the role really fell onto us. It fell onto the students who were journalists trying to get the information out there.”

Reporters documented police crackdowns, dove into inconsistencies from university administration and demanded answers to opaque decision making. Khan questioned USC President Carol Folt on three occasions pushing for transparency.

Student reporting has earned praise and even deference by legacy media outlets. New York Magazine handed over its May 4 cover story to the journalists at The Columbia Spectator. The Spectator staff chronicled the creation and destruction of the Gaza encampment in stunning detail, combining interviews with their intimate knowledge of Columbia’s history and geography.

In Los Angeles, Khan and his colleagues at Annenberg Media have been reporting on the USC administration decision to silence its 2024 Commencement valedictorian, Asna Tabassum. Never before has a valedictorian at USC been denied the opportunity to speak. The unprecedented move angered many and led to outcry on campus and nationwide. The university cited unnamed security concerns as to why Tabassum would not be permitted to speak, while others pointed to the pro-Israel attacks against Tabassum. Students rallied to reinstate Tabassum:

On April 24, USC students created a Gaza encampment and on the same day, USC called on law enforcement to arrest students, leading to further uproar. Faculty intervened to negotiate for student amnesty and signaled their deep discontent in a censure vote of President Carol Folt and Provost Andrew Guzman. Annenberg Media documented faculty protests:

Khan described widespread rejection of university leadership this way: 

“She’s essentially lost the trust of students on all sides. Because calling on the LAPD, onto your campus to deal with your students has inherently upset everybody and the faculty as well because all of them are mad. You have groups who are pro Palestinian and then you have groups who are pro free speech. And then you have groups who essentially think that calling on the LAPD on your students and on your faculty members is wrong.” 

USC’s Commencement occurred on May 10 and ultimately Tabassum was not allowed to speak. But she was honored by her classmates with an eruption of cheering and a standing ovation. Tabassum graduated as Valedictorian of the USC Class of 2024 with a major in biomedical engineering and a minor in resistance to genocide. 

During the discussion, S. Mitra Kalita, CEO of URL Media and co-host of the Twice as Good podcast read from Tabassum’s statement, giving her the last word: 

“As your class valedictorian, I implore my USC classmates to think outside the box. To work towards a world where cries for equality and human dignity are not manipulated to be expressions of hatred. I challenge us to respond to ideological discomfort with dialogue and learning, not bigotry and censorship. And I urge us to see past our deepest fears and recognize the need to support justice for all people, including the Palestinian people.”

For more fearless reporting that centers collective liberation, follow URL Media partner Prism. Prism has been reporting on growing calls for universities to disclose and divest from Israel, explained here: 

See you next time.