Deconstructing the Divide student reporting project explores inequity in Syracuse

Last fall, more than 100 Newhouse School students set out to examine inequity in Syracuse by telling the stories of people and communities affected by disparities and their hopes or efforts to improve their circumstances.

The result: Deconstructing the Divide, an impressive reporting project comprising more than two dozen student-produced packages featuring photos, videos, illustrations, data visualizations and interactives.

“This is the most ambitious news experience project yet in size, scope and topic—and that’s not even factoring in a global pandemic,” says Jon Glass, professor of practice in magazine, news and digital journalism (MND) and executive producer of The NewsHouse, which hosts the project.

This is the fourth year Glass and a team of professors and students have led a student reporting project, with past initiatives examining the legalization of marijuana, issues along the U.S.-Canadian border and the March for Our Lives protests in Washington, D.C. and Syracuse.

Sydney Gold at WAER
Sydney Gold discusses her reporting on lead poisoning with WAER news director Chris Bolt.

This year’s topic, identified by MND assistant professor Greg Munno and developed last summer by a core team of faculty members and students, was informed by the unrest following the murder of George Floyd. When the academic year began, Glass put out a call and ended up with a team of students from virtually every program at Newhouse. “The topic drew a lot of interest,” Glass says. “We’ve all been affected by social justice issues, and it was heartening to see so many students want to join and take part in this because it’s an important topic.”

Partners on this year’s project included The Stand, Syracuse’s South Side community newspaper, and local NPR affiliate WAER. The Stand published a special edition featuring South Side stories from the project and, together with WAER, produced a four-part radio series with newspaper and online journalism junior Sydney Gold discussing her reporting on lead poisoning in Syracuse children.

Other notable stories:

Kayla Johnson Deconstructing the Divide
Local social justice activist Kayla Johnson, photographed by Renée Deemer

Another aspect to the project, Visualizing 81, explores the fraught history of Interstate 81 in Syracuse using immersive media tools. Headed by Dan Pacheco, Peter A. Horvitz Endowed Chair in Journalism Innovation, and Amber Bartosh, assistant professor in the School of Architecture, the project uses 360 photos, 3D models and photogrammetry to help users visualize the highway’s past, present and future. A dedicated team of students—led by senior advertising major Sonny Cirasuolo, senior photography major Molly Gibbs, junior NOJ major Amanda Paule and junior architecture major Lawry Boyer—continues to work on this project, which will see new iterations moving forward.

Professional Experience

About a third of participating students had worked on previous reporting projects, but there was also a lot of interest from first- and second-year students who hadn’t yet been involved with in-depth reporting efforts, Glass says.

Students were divided into teams headed by student coordinators: Senior NOJ major Patrick Linehan was content director, senior graphic design major Kevin Camelo was design director, senior public relations major Frankie Sailer was social media director and senior photography major Laura Oliverio was visuals director.

Students developed story ideas and pitched them to the team of project coordinators before dedicating their entire fall semester to reporting.

TJ Shaw photographs local Syracuse residents
TJ Shaw photographs a group of Syracuse residents on the day of the Derek Chauvin verdict (Mike Greenlar | The Stand)

Linehan, who has been involved with NewsHouse reporting projects since 2018, says his work on this year’s project helped him develop invaluable skills: team and workflow management, content strategy and practice line- and copy-editing, writing display copy and working with a content management system.

“I am extremely proud of the stories that highlight the people doing the work in the community,” he says. “A story profiling several community leaders and history makers, and a series on Syracuse activists shows how much people are already talking about issues of inequality and the amazing work being done to help.”

For Oliverio, the visuals director, the project represented her first time in this kind of leadership role. She says it provided her with a more in-depth understanding of the duties of a photo editor, giving her more confidence as she begins her career. “I discovered I love organizing big projects and assigning specific photographers to certain stories,” she says. “I’m happy with the end result. It took a lot of time and effort but I think we really made a difference and did great work. Plus, it was my first time in the position of a photo editor and I discovered I enjoy that type of role!”

Unique Challenges

Executing the project in the middle of a pandemic was a challenge, of course. Students met via Zoom rather than in person, reporters and photographers had to quarantine on occasion and some sources were not comfortable with in-person interviews, Linehan says.

But the obstacles also led to a more creative approach, with graphic design playing a more central role that in past years. “With a team of seven illustrators, we were able to overcome some of the challenges that came with COVID,” says Camelo, the design director. “Sometimes we weren’t able to photograph an event. In that case, a member of our design team jumped at the chance to encapsulate the message of the story in an illustration.”

Camelo says one of his favorite pieces is an illustration by Nina Bridges, in which she represented a history of women’s efforts to close the wage gap.

Nina Bridges illustration for a story on the wage gap
An illustration by Nina Bridges for the story “New Glass Ceilings”

“Too often, society views things like racism or sexism as something that just magically happened. With the design of the project, The NewsHouse took the word ‘deconstructing’ to heart,” Camelo says. “Visitors will see a system of puzzle pieces that aim to reinforce our project narrative: we’re piecing together the history of inequality in Syracuse. This system works hand-in-hand with the fabulous work of contributing photographers and illustrators.”

Glass served as project coordinator. Content coordinators were Munno, Shelvia Dancy, professor of practice in broadcast and digital journalism, and Ashley Kang, director of The Stand. MND associate professor Seth Gitner served as site developer and design coordinator. Rawiya Kameir, MND assistant teaching professor, was editing coordinator, and Amy Toensing, assistant professor of visual communications, was visuals coordinator.