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Journalism Students Tell Stony Brook’s Pandemic Story

SBU Transformed graphic

SBU Transformed graphicThe pandemic hit Long Island early, and it hit the region hard. Stony Brook University and Stony Brook Hospital played significant roles in helping the community adjust and adapt. While doctors, nurses and medical staff rallied to treat the sick, the University transitioned all educational and most research activities online.

Stony Brook journalism students also went into high gear. Approximately 30 students spent the past 10 months reporting on the shared experiences of the Stony Brook community.

Their reporting 45 stories, including podcasts, videos and an interactive timeline charting the course of the pandemic — is now available on a student-designed website, Stony Brook Transformed.

“Our students told the stories of what was happening at the University, the Hospital, and in Stony Brook research labs, capturing moments of triumph and tragedy as the coronavirus swirled around us,” said Irene Virag, associate dean of the School of Communication and Journalism, who supervised the project. “They told the stories of how students kept campus life going online and battled the emotional toll of the pandemic and how some of them changed their career goals to go into healthcare fields. They told stories of professors who embraced Zoom and how the gender gap widened for women in academe. They told the stories of researchers who used supercomputers and artificial intelligence and studied bats’ noses and sewage to uncover the virus’ secrets. And they chronicled the dark days and long nights of nurses just doing their jobs.”

The project started with an idea from Rick Ricioppo, assistant professor of practice, to document the pandemic at Stony Brook. The idea came to life in Summer 2020 when Virag, Ricioppo and journalism instructor Terry Sheridan, who is news director of WSHU, an NPR affiliate with offices on campus, worked with a small team of students to brainstorm story possibilities and lay the groundwork with initial reporting and research. The project was picked up in the fall semester by the school’s three advanced digital journalism classes to collaborate and connect their reporting. The work continued in the spring in Virag’s and Sheridan’s senior reporting classes.

“When we were writing about the University and Hospital, some people had a really hard time getting in touch with sources. If we hadn’t had that collaboration, we wouldn’t have had so many great stories,” said Sabrina Liguori, who graduated in May after working as Virag’s teaching assistant and writing a story about a Stony Brook nurse. “Everyone was like, how are we going to make this work? It wasn’t about competing to get the best quote. It was about telling each story as best we could.”

Rather than having to report, write, edit and file stories on traditional timelines of days or weeks, students were able to take deeper dives and evolve their stories as the pandemic progressed. 

“In the beginning, a lot of researchers were saying, this isn’t done, it’s not going to be done for a while. It was just a matter of keeping up with the sources,” said Joseph, who designed the logo and wrote the opening essay as well as several stories about Stony Brook researchers. “I kept up with my sources and made sure the story was still current. It was nice to be able to take these sweeping fully formed ideas and say, this was developed and it’s getting implemented right now.”

Students also had to conduct all interviews remotely, which complicated their reporting efforts.

“I’m especially proud of the students, because they had to report the stories under the COVID safety restrictions,” Sheridan said. “What would have been an easy interview to book and conduct pre-COVID became more complicated. But they adapted.”

Once the reporting was done, Joseph, Liguori and another graduating senior, Louis Pagillo, spent most of their summer creating the website together. For all three, the website was part frustration, part labor of love.

“I had to remind myself that I had an obligation to finish this; it was the journalist voice in me saying that this story is important and it needs to be heard,”said Pagillo, who did a story about a researcher who modeled the coronavirus. “I hope the site gets more recognition toward the researchers and people on campus in general. You hear about the results of this research but you never hear about the people who did it. Being able to hear from these researchers directly and tell their story about what they worked on was important to me. People should know what they’ve done.”

Stony Brook Transformed was supported by the MJS Foundation, which has previously supported in-depth journalism projects including the award-winning Slavery on Long Island and the Pine Barrens Project

“It’s our history. It’s a big thing. I think it’s really cool that, as journalism students, we were able to tell this story,” Liguori said. “It’s not just something that’s like, ‘This is a story I did when I was a student.’ It’s like, ‘No, I covered this momentous event.’”

As Virag put it, “This pandemic may be the biggest story of their generation. And they covered it — even as they lived it.”

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