Students, Defender partner to cover Texas state politics

Five Austin journalism students received an opportunity to cover Texas state politics up-close through a unique partnership with the Houston Defender Media Group, an 88-year-old Black Press institution.

The Defender, which covers the Houston area and beyond through its print and digital editions, reached out to the Communications departments at the University of Texas at Austin and Huston-Tillotson University to recruit interns to cover the recent bi-annual summit of the Texas Legislative Black Caucus. The summit is hosted by African-American lawmakers during the Texas Legislature’s session.

It is rare for African-American newspapers to form alliances with universities in other markets to better inform their audiences, but the unique opportunity to secure interns from two Austin universities provided a win-win for both the students and Defender readers.

The five students included three interns from UT, Chase Karacostas, Alexis Tatum and Katie Balevic, along with two interns from HT, Samaiya Kirven and McKayla Ellison.  

Summit workshops covered by the students were: Criminal Justice Reform; Pipeline: Juvenile Justice Reform; The Silent Killer: Mental Health and Maternal Mortality Rate in the Black Community; The State of Texas HBCUs and Public Education, and 2020 Census/Redistricting. 

During a picnic lunch break, students discussed their goals and concerns regarding the world of journalism.

Kathleen McElroy, Ph.D., director of the UT School of Journalism in the Moody College of Communication, explained why such partnerships are important.

“Working with professional outlets like the Defender [gives students] real-world experience,” McElroy said. “I believe because they were reporting for the Defender, they took the assignment even more seriously. They wanted to do well.”   

At Huston-Tillotson, a Historically Black College and University, communications instructor Cate Malek, echoed McElroy’s thoughts.

“Both of my students were enthusiastic about getting out of the classroom and trying out their skills in a real-world setting,” Malek said. “Some of the things we talked about in class that seemed vague to them took on a new urgency. This included concepts like the importance of the press as the fourth estate and questioning those in government or other positions of power. 

“Also, they began to apply more advanced interviewing and reporting skills, such as taking meticulous notes, tracking down names and contact information for everyone involved in their panels and conducting thorough background research,” Malek said.”

Defender Publisher and CEO Sonny Messiah Jiles said the partnership was a success.

“Hands-on experience is priceless,” Messiah-Jiles said. “You can teach the classroom approach but until you get out in the real world it is not the same. Thinking on your feet, pressing for the answers to questions, pushing to meet a deadline and verifying sources are skills aspiring journalists must learn.

“The Defender appreciates how the University of Texas and Huston-Tillotson allowed us to work with their students and provide our audience with information about issues that impact their lives.”