Sarah King, a political science major and executive editor of the Commonwealth Times, took part in the first College Reporter Day at the White House last week. Photo courtesy the White House.

Student journalist visits White House, receives press briefing from Obama

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Sarah King, a political science major and philosophy of law minor in the Virginia Commonwealth University College of Humanities and Sciences, was among 50 student reporters from colleges and universities across the country who were selected to take part in the White House’s first College Reporter Day, which featured meetings with senior administration officials, interactions with the White House press corps and a briefing by President Barack Obama.

King, executive editor of the Commonwealth Times, received an invitation to apply for the event while she was on a train heading to Brooklyn as part of a team to cover the men's basketball A-10 championships for the Commonwealth Times and Richmond’s WRIC-TV Channel 8 News.

In her application, King submitted a number of work samples, including coverage of Title IX, diversity and inclusion and student loan debt, but also a story, "Hitting too close to home: Student's homicide reflects national trend of gun violence victims," about Joe Bose, a junior journalism student at Hampton University who was fatally shot in a drive-by in Norfolk in October.

“To this day, nobody has been charged in the shooting,” King wrote in an email. “The story highlights the high concentration of gun violence victims and deaths in that area – and Alec Bose, Joe's older brother and a VCU alum, orientation leader and RA – asked that everyone share the story and any information as widely as possible.”

Even if her application wasn’t accepted, she thought, it might bring Bose’s story to the White House’s attention.

“In every field of the application I answered the questions by linking clips I knew were on the ‘agenda,’ but also including the link to the story about Joe and somehow transitioning my answer to make the gun violence conversation equally relevant,” she said. “I thought it was appropriate, and frankly my hope was that even if I was not selected to participate in the event, the article might land in front of a member of the administration who is in a position to address the issue – or at least get an idea of how close this does ‘hit home’ for so many Americans. Joe was a journalism student at HU, and this was the best way I knew how to honor his life, his family and his ambitions.”

King’s application was ultimately accepted, however, and she traveled to the White House for College Reporter Day last Thursday.

President Barack Obama fielded questions from the 50 student journalists from across the country who took part in College Reporter Day. Photo courtesy the White House.
President Barack Obama fielded questions from the 50 student journalists from across the country who took part in College Reporter Day. Photo courtesy the White House.

“I wasn't sure what to expect as I showed up the northwest gate on Thursday,” she wrote. “I tentatively knew what the schedule would entail, but I had no idea what schools would be represented, if we were going to have to participate in awkward icebreaker games – I hate awkward icebreaker games – or if I would be allowed to smoke the occasional cigarette throughout the day (because surely people who work at the White House don't smoke cigarettes … and if they do, surely not on grounds … around other people ... like the president).”

“To my satisfaction,” King continued, “the day proceeded smoothly without any forced icebreaker games, I was allowed to smoke (multiple!) cigarettes (with other participating college kids, and even a White House intern) and the day was packed with on-the-record dialogues with senior administration [officials] who addressed issues I felt extremely knowledgeable about due to my experience reporting on VCU's campus.”

Following a briefing from White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest, Obama arrived, saying he had heard there were some “hotshot journalists here.” The president addressed a variety of topics, including college affordability, immigration, Syrian refugees and his nomination of Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court.

“My hope is that despite some of the unusual rhetoric that we've been hearing during this presidential campaign, that it's young people like you who are going to restore that sense of us being able to work together and make this democracy function effectively,” Obama said. “And journalists play a critical role in that. Sometimes both Josh and I probably have our disagreements with the press corps, and feel picked on or misunderstood, but the truth of the matter is – and I've said this before – what separates us out in part from a lot of other countries in the world is we've got this incredible free press that pokes and prods and calls into account our leaders. And that is how we can make sure that leaders are accountable to the people who elect them. And that's how we make sure that you don’t see major abuses of power. And when you do that, in fact, the American people know about it and are able to make changes.”

“And so you guys are going to have a critical role, those of you who end up following journalism,” he added. “I hope many of you do.”

It made me proud to realize how ahead of the curve VCU is in a lot of aspects compared to other schools.

One of the highlights of the day, King said, was a discussion on college campuses’ best practices regarding Title IX, the federal civil rights law that prohibits sex discrimination – including sexual harassment, sexual battery, sexual assault and rape – in education.

“It made me proud to realize how ahead of the curve VCU is in a lot of aspects compared to other schools,” she said. “Furthermore, I felt better educated on the multi-faceted issues we were addressing – partially because I've covered Title IX for the CT, but also because of the collaborative efforts of [VCU Police Chief] John Venuti and the VCU PD, Student Affairs, The Well and Equity and Access Services in ensuring the campus community is informed and taking responsibility for what [Senior Advisor the President] Valerie Jarrett basically called ‘an epidemic.’”

After Jarrett spoke to the college journalists, King followed Jarrett out of the room to thank her for her remarks on sexual assault and for talking about “Re-entry Week,” which is meant to highlight programs that reduce recidivism and restoring the rights of ex-offenders.

“I told her I knew she was in a rush, but that it made me so hopeful that these issues are a priority to the administration – and as a survivor of rape and repeated sexual assault as a minor – these topics do matter, do continue to affect people's lives and do deserve a place on the national agenda,” King said.

“I told her about how my boyfriend of two years had struggled with crack-cocaine addiction and navigating the justice system for most of his life, and was now in federal prison serving a six-year sentence,” she continued. “I told her about how I appeared in federal court and wrote a letter to Federal Fourth Circuit Court Judge Arenda Allen, an Obama appointee, and how she told me it would be a disservice if I did not pursue law or public policy.”

“I don't know why I told Valerie Jarrett all these things except for that she was so incredibly human, compassionate,” she said. “Even though her assistant was waiting for her a few steps down the hall and she probably had a million more important things to do than entertain a college student she would probably never see again – she instead asked me more about my experiences – what prison? How was his 9-year-old son coping? How do we portray that violence against women is an epidemic, that it warrants personal responsibility from men and women?”

“And then she squeezed my hand and smiled and we hugged again.”

A few other highlights, she said, included briefly sharing lunch with VCU alumnus Jeff Tiller, who is a White House communications specialist; meeting the White House dogs Bo and Sunny; and having her quarter-sleeve tattoo complimented by a Secret Service agent.

Finally, she said, it was inspirational to get a chance to meet members of the White House press corps.

“It was reassuring to hear the White House correspondents who spoke to us – representing some of the top news outlets in the nation – say that a lot of them had no idea what their life's direction was when they were our age,” she said. “And a lot of them started out in the same place we were now – as curious, broke college reporters.”

King’s coverage of College Reporter Day appeared in the Commonwealth Times on April 29: “Obama discusses college affordability with student reporters.”


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