Indiana University

Indiana University Journalism

International students reflect on covering U.S. elections

Kourtney Liepelt | Dec. 6, 2012
election night
Photo by Bonnie Layton
WTIU/WFIU news bureau director Sara Wittmeyer organized a team of student reporters to cover area races on election night. The team included several journalism graduate students from other countries.
Covering elections is an exciting opportunity for any journalist, but for international students who participated in WFIU/WTIU’s coverage of the 2012 races, it was unlike anything they had experienced in their home countries.

Roshni Verghese, a graduate student from India and a correspondent for the station, had been dispatched to the District 60 race between Peggy Welch and Peggy Mayfield on the evening of Nov. 6. Overall, she said actually being a part of the coverage, rather than simply watching things on television from India, led to a much more emotional experience than she had ever had before.

“Over here, the emphasis is on liberty and the freedom to choose your president is so pronounced, especially through the coverage that leads up to election night,” Verghese said. “In India, I felt that yes, people can choose their leader and all that is there, but the environment is very different.”

Many of the students are in the journalism graduate studies' digital sequence, specializing in multimedia reporting. Others are interns or volunteers at the PBS and NPR affiliates' news room.

The goal in utilizing international students for local coverage was not to bring an international perspective to the table, news bureau chief Sara Wittmeyer said. It was to report and record information as any other student or member of the team would, and their manpower was necessary so as to keep things running smoothly.

However, the excitement among them throughout the day and after all results were tallied did strike Wittmeyer as exceptional, she said. 

“I think a lot of times we can forget how voting and just the democratic process is just this really amazing thing,” Wittmeyer said. “We take it for granted. Then when we have international students who remind you that, you know what, this isn’t the way it’s done everywhere else. We’re pretty lucky to have a voice. It reminds you why what you do is important.”

Graduate student Adrianna Zhang, a native of China, also took part on election night, yet her role differed from that of Verghese. Rather than heading out to the field, she remained in the newsroom, one of many responsible for gathering data and entering it into their system, she said.

Prior to election night, though, Zhang said she had the chance to put together a story about a debate between Shelley Yoder and Todd Young. This experience allowed her a glimpse into the ways journalists in America access and gather information, which she said was vastly different than what she had witnessed previously.

election night
Photo by Bonnie Layton
While some students were out in the field, others updated the website or posted returns.
“In China, we’re not equal,” Zhang said. “They are candidates, they are officials, and we are just average people. We don’t have the access to meet them or really talk, not in that way. We can do it maybe through some specific channel, but not like here, where you can really meet them and talk.”

As a result, Zhang said she’s learned more about the ways journalism works within America, and it offered insight into life here.

“This experience gave me some knowledge about the society here and about Western perspectives,” Zhang said. “It helped me to understand the difference between different areas, different cultures.”

Wittmeyer said despite the flurry of activity and bustling environment that go hand-in-hand with election coverage, the experience provided the students with an opportunity to think on their feet, as any journalist must master.

“To be honest, I think it was a bit overwhelming to them at times,” Wittmeyer said. “It’s so fast-paced and it changes all the time. As they’re calling counties and getting numbers, almost by the time you get the numbers, they’re outdated… I think on election night, all of us we realized you can come up with the best laid plans, but then it all blows up as soon as the polls close.”

Now that it’s all said and done, Verghese said she hopes to one day see similar coverage in her home nation. 

“I’m just grateful to even have the opportunity to be a part of it, and hopefully someday reporting of this caliber, I would hope that my country would kind of be able to replicate that,” she said. “And if not, do something along the same lines.”    

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