UNL students explore democracy on campus, join national efforts

Thursday, October 6, 2022 - 11:00am

by Lauren Penington via Nebraska News Service

On Sept. 15, hundreds of students across the University of Nebraska-Lincoln College of Journalism and Mass Communications participated in the national Democracy Day effort to raise awareness of threats facing American democracy. 

Joining forces with over 350 news organizations, UNL student journalists published pro-democracy stories on the Nebraska News Service website.

“This opportunity allowed me to have a team to work with and gave me an opportunity to learn new things about reporting and the community,” said Owen Reimer, a UNL freshman from Bellevue, Nebraska, in the Experience Lab — an experiential learning program. 

In his story, Reimer explored the origin of a four-part Seward County Independent series debunking voter fraud myths and the public’s negative perception of voter security that worried the county clerk.

UNL senior Hanna Christensen of Lincoln, Nebraska, said she also felt the experience was valuable — for freshmen and seniors alike. 

“Participating in Democracy Day gave us, as students, the chance to come together and work on something for the greater good of the community,” said UNL senior Hanna Christensen of Lincoln, Nebraska. “As a senior in the capstone course and a student lead for the Nebraska News Service, I got to see new students enjoy conducting interviews for the first time and more experienced students continue to grow their portfolio of work.”

According to Christensen, who covered Common Cause Nebraska — a local non-profit organization that defends democracy and voting rights in Nebraska — speaking with the organization’s leaders and learning about different pro-democracy organizations reminded her that everyone has the ability to make a difference.

Other students wrote about the safety and security of electionsengaging democracy in classrooms and the possibility of an election day holiday. In the end, students wrote more than 20 stories that centered on issues about democracy and the people and groups who are trying to strengthen it. 

Students from Jacht — a full-service student advertising agency at the college — created social media graphics and video content to raise awareness about the coverage and events occurring throughout the college. 

While students from the News Lab, the capstone class for broadcasting and journalism majors, and the Experience Lab spearheaded democracy-related stories, students in CoJMC classes also acknowledged the occasion, both on the day of and during the week leading up to it. 

On Sept. 7, about a week before Democracy Day, UNL professor Kelli Boling welcomed Heather Engdahl from Civic Nebraska to speak to her class about voting rights and voter suppression, the importance of voting, gerrymandering and building a voting plan. 

“She answered some really great questions about how the students can vote while they’re in college,” Boling said. “She also gave us a list of ways the students can get involved. I had one student who was already volunteering with Civic Nebraska, and he wrote a story for their website about Husker voter turnout.”

A week later, Lincoln City Attorney Yohance Christie and Sara Houston, the director of the Lincoln Commission on Human Rights, spoke to the class about human rights and civil rights — both globally and in Lincoln. 

“I’ve never had a class this engaged before. They are an amazing group of students,” Boling said. “They’re asking hard questions, searching for answers, and all of my guest speakers have been impressed with their interest in the topics. Heather said she’s never had any student in a UNL class ask her questions during her presentation, and she really appreciated how interested my students were.”

In the Nebraska Mosaic course, which spends the semester reporting on underrepresented communities, professor Michelle Hassler devoted the Sept. 15 class period to a discussion of the role of journalism in democracy and how that continues to change and evolve over time. 

The newly formed chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists also got into the act by offering a Democracy Day booth outside the Nebraska Union, asking one question: What does democracy mean to you?

Students wrote their answers on sticky notes and placed them on a whiteboard, creating a motley of colors and answers. 

“Running the booth was a great opportunity to connect our campus community with the broader concept of democracy,” said UNL senior Zach Wendling, who is leading the chapter as president. “Every single person is impacted by our government, whether we think of it or not, and seeing so many of our students come together to discuss those ideals was a worthwhile experience. We had about 30 students, faculty and staff join us, and I’m grateful to every single one for coming out and joining our mission.”

UNL professor Shoun Hill led a photojournalism opportunity at the booth, helping students collect visual responses from community members on what democracy means to them, with most centered around using their voice, equal opportunities and governance generally.

According to Wendling, the day was important to him because, without democracy, the free flow of information that SPJ works to uphold is next to impossible. 

“Our goals are to document the world and be flies on the wall and having a government where peoples’ voices are magnified is critical to a free society,” Wendling said. “Democracy Day was a celebration and an examination of our system of governance, and the students in our college stepped up to join the mission and produced valuable content for any of our readers.”

UNL professor Maria Marron invited Wendling to speak to her ethics class that afternoon, hosting a conversation about his experiences working in Washington, D.C., over the past two summers and the importance of democracy in the field of journalism. 

“With a background in political and policy reporting, Marron and I also discussed what obstacles we frequently run into in our field and how we approach those ethically and thoughtfully,” Wendling said. “No matter who we are working with, whether it is people on the street, public officials, friends or family, everyone has humanity, and journalists must ensure we are always keeping that in mind and not getting lost in the process.”

Hassler and journalism professor Jill Martin, who coordinated the Democracy Day activities in the college, said they look forward to reprising this year’s effort and including even more students and activities next year, when the college plans to again take part in the national initiative in 2023.

Heather Engdahl of Civic Rights Nebraska speaks to 250 students in UNL's College of Journalism and Mass Communications about voting rights, the importance of voting, voter suppression, gerrymandering and making a voting plan (Photo courtesy of Kelli Boling).
Heather Engdahl of Civic Rights Nebraska speaks to 250 students in UNL's College of Journalism and Mass Communications about voting rights, the importance of voting, voter suppression, gerrymandering and making a voting plan (Photo courtesy of Kelli Boling).