Presidential election night is considered the Super Bowl of journalism. Journalists are expected to deliver at the highest-level while under intense pressure in a rapidly changing environment.

Sixteen journalism students and 20 radio-television students recently experienced the election rite of passage through a partnership with the Orlando Sentinel on Nov. 3.

Orlando’s flagship newspaper has been operating without a newsroom since August and with a significantly reduced staff, genuinely in need of more reporters to properly cover this massive story. NSCM students came to the rescue and fanned out across Central Florida — filing dispatches at polling sites and election offices, monitoring social media, capturing photos and videos, and contributing to on-air reporting and broadcasts throughout the night.

“UCF’s student journalists played a critical role in the Orlando Sentinel’s 2020 Election Day coverage.” –Julie Anderson ’84 ’89MA, editor-in-chief for the ‘Orlando Sentinel

“UCF’s student journalists played a critical role in the Orlando Sentinel’s 2020 Election Day coverage,” says Julie Anderson ’84 ’89MA, Orlando Sentinel’s editor-in-chief. “Their reporting from precincts all over our region about voters’ perspectives gave flavor to the results that were coming in on Election Day. They also applied their social media and broadcasting skills to help us inform readers about the results coming in.

In turn, students gained hands-on experience working with a major news organization; garnered feedback from Sentinel editors; earned the chance to land future internships and jobs; shared bylines, shirttail credits and broadcast credits; and — best of all — had the unique thrill and adrenaline rush of writing on deadline while covering one of the biggest stories of the year.

“I learned so much from simply being out on the field and watching how an election is covered. I think this type of learning skyrockets student journalists’ abilities and education,” says Natalia Jaramillo, a journalism major who reported from the Orange County Supervisor of Elections Office.

Some of the highlights for journalism majors include:

  • Edward Segarra wrote a breaking news story about the Osceola Supervisor of Election Office’s Internet outage that resulted from a severed fiber cable. He and Jessica Siles reported on voters throughout Osceola County, including a long-time Democrat who voted for Trump because the rest of the family was for Biden.
  • Fritz Farrow wrote a story about a former postal worker who voted in person because he didn’t trust the U.S. Postal Service.
  • Two reporters, Hector Garcia de Leon and Kai Rodriquez, contributed stories to the Sentinel‘s Hispanic publication, El Sentinel, and received shared bylines.
  • Daniela Vivas Labrador and Jenna Erhlich covered Seminole County, including a story about two women, 87 and 70, who have voted in every election since they were 18.

“The Orlando Sentinel staff did a wonderful job at preparing us and making us feel welcome and valued,” says Monica Sealey, who worked with four other students to cover UCF’s voting precinct. “I really like that they didn’t ‘baby’ us. Instead, they gave us the guidelines, set us free and trusted us to produce great content.”

“The ‘Orlando Sentinel’ staff did a wonderful job at preparing us and making us feel welcome and valued.” – Monica Sealey, UCF student

As the night went on, students got better at recognizing a story, finding a different angle, interviewing voters, remembering to get the essential details and cutting down on sloppy copy. We witnessed them excel at something they had never done before and become more confident as the night went on.

“I remember in my first semester at UCF, I was in the Electronic News Gathering class with [R/TV Program Coordinator and Associate] Professor Tim Brown and something he told me that I have held close to me and tried to apply each and every day in my journalism career was, ‘You grow most where you’re uncomfortable,’ ” says Matison Little, who covered voting in Lake County with another student.

Behind the scenes, the 20 radio television students earned praise from faculty and Sentinel editors for their steady and calm composure during live broadcasts.

“They rose to the challenge. They took it seriously. They wanted to be part of it. They wanted a piece of it,” Senior Instructor Rick Brunson says. “They treated it like it was show time.”

Together, students and faculty may have built the foundation for more cooperative efforts between the Orlando Sentinel and the UCF journalism program.

“It was a great experience for the Sentinel, and a partnership we hope to extend,” Anderson says.