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MMC Students Practice Boots on the Ground Reporting At El Chapo Trial

November 26, 2018
  • Students in line to enter the courthouse for the El Chapo trial
    Students in line to enter the courthouse for the El Chapo trial

On November 13, MMC’s Journalism in the 21st Century and Future Directions in Journalism classes headed to the US District Court – Eastern District of New York in Brooklyn to hear opening arguments in the trial against Joaquín Guzmán Loera, known as El Chapo, one of the world’s most dangerous drug dealers. The goal: write a breaking news story on one of the biggest trials of the year and network with news outlets.

The day began and ended with a gloomy rain. First a drizzle and then a gush, the rain soaked both the news vans stationed around a blockaded Cadman Plaza Park and the students from Assistant Professor Tatiana Serafin’s journalism classes, who waited for nearly an hour on a slowly moving security line that snaked around the court building. Just before 9am, the earliest-arriving students were through security and handing off their smart-phones, prohibited in the courtroom. There was no way to communicate with students coming in later and no way to know what was going on in the outside world for the next several hours.

The next stop was the line to get into the Judge Brian Cogan’s courtroom. Some reporters had arrived as early as 6am, only to be stalled by extra-tight security measures. The main courtroom quickly ran out of reporter seats, and an overflow room was opened, accommodating about 47 additional reporters and several students from Journalism in the 21st Century. All reporters were treated equally, and the students rubbed shoulders with heavyweights from CNN, ABC, WPIX, Telemundo, The Washington Post, The Times of London, Newsday, and many others.

The overflow room had several screens live-streaming courtroom 8DS. The students watched as El Chapo entered from a secure room, waved to his wife and shook hands with his attorneys, as if he were at a networking event. He then sat next to an interpreter who spoke directly into his ear because of El Chapo’s hearing issues. But before opening arguments began, Judge Cogan informed the plaintiffs and defendants that he had received two notes from jurors that had to be considered before moving forward.

What happened next resulted in extreme delays in the trial, providing the students with an important lesson in the patience and persistence required for ground reporting. While the judge and lawyers exited to deliberate on new jurors, the reporters in the overflow room had to wait with no information and no contact with the outside world. Going to the restroom required going through security again, and if anyone left the floor to get food or to try to contact an editor or producer, they lost their place in the overflow room.

Students settled in and spoke with many of the reporters in the room, who were excited to meet rising journalists. Matt Zapotosky from The Washington Post spoke to them about working for a company owned by Amazon billionaire Jeff Bezos; Will Pavia from The Times of London interviewed students for a potential column about MMC and the El Chapo trial; Brian Ross, chief investigative reporter for ABC News, offered to help a student learn about internships; and Judith Torrea, a freelance writer from Mexico, gave students advice about interviewing constantly and never being afraid.

Meanwhile, other MMC students waited outside the overflow room in a line of hopeful reporters wanting to get in. They were able to see El Chapo’s wife and mother going back and forth to the restroom and watched as reporters tried to get comments from them. One MMC student was interviewed by Newsday’s Nicole Fuller before entering the courtroom and quoted in her article:

“Adam Ophir, 18, a freshman at Marymount Manhattan College on the Upper East Side who’s originally from Marin County, California, was assigned to cover the trial for a journalism class. Ophir worried about his prospects for landing a spot inside but said he’d be willing to sacrifice his comfort. ‘I’ll sit on the floor if I have to,’ he said.” View the full article here.

Students in Journalism in the 21st Century began studying the El Chapo story as part of their lessons on how to write a breaking news article. Students reviewed 2016 coverage of El Chapo’s capture and also read Sean Penn’s Rolling Stone interview with El Chapo. They followed the headlines leading up to the trial in preparation for the Brooklyn courthouse trip. Students in Future Directions in Journalism practice local beat reporting, and this trip helped them achieve their local reporting goals.

In the end, opening arguments began a little after 3pm. Security ultimately relented and let in all of the remaining reporters waiting on the security line. While many reporters had given up after the hours-long delay, MMC students remained and were finally able to hear the first part of the opening arguments before court adjourned at 4:30pm. Then they went back out in the rain again.

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