Tyler Whetstone’s journalism professors at Trevecca had no way of predicting that six years after graduating, he’d be trying to figure out how to do his job in the middle of a global pandemic.
But what they did know was that regardless of the state of the world, journalists need to know how to find a story, write a compelling lede and hold both themselves—and those they’re reporting on—accountable. While all of these things have been critical throughout Whetstone’s professional career, he says he’s relied on them more than ever over the past few months.
Whetstone, who graduated in 2014, works as a political reporter for the Knoxville News Sentinel. He joined the newspaper in 2016 as the city politics reporter, covering city meetings and ordinances while his coworker covered county politics. About seven months into the position, however, the county politics reporter was fired.
At that point, Whetstone became both the city and the county reporter.
“[Because of that], over the last three years, I've got this system down where I cover what is essential,” he said. “This virus has just exploded and really limited what I can cover, even now with Zoom meetings that you can watch later. It’s all an experiment in learning.”
Of course, there’s no training for working in the middle of a pandemic, says Jo Ellen Werking-Weedman, Trevecca professor of journalism and advisor of the student newspaper. But students of Trevecca’s journalism program are well-equipped with skills that guide them as top-notch journalists, regardless of the story.
“Some of the most important skills that good journalists have are curiosity, critical thinking, and, honestly, for most journalists, every day is different,” Werking-Weedman said. “Most journalists I know are tenacious and resilient, and they really see this as public service. Journalists are really accustomed to hard stories. They cover crime and systems that don’t work, policies that harm people, trauma. I think they are particularly skilled at this sort of work. It’s a calling. They are particularly equipped to do this work because they have actually been called to it.”
Though some of what Whetstone is covering right now has changed because of COVID-19, the stories don’t stop. Whetstone said he feels like he is even busier now than before the pandemic started.
“My focus has been almost entirely on the local government’s reaction to the pandemic. Locally, we have not been hit nearly as hard as Nashville and Memphis, but we have a county and city mayor that have vastly different [means] of getting to the same goal of keeping everyone safe,” Whetstone said. “Our county furloughed 300, almost 400 employees. We’ve been writing a whole lot about that and the decision-making that has been going on, being critical of it, asking questions. It’s been quite the task.”
Since the pandemic began, Whetstone has been furloughed three times. But despite not being able to work, he says his journalist’s brain is wired to ask questions and stay informed.
“You’re not supposed to check your email. You’re not supposed to talk to anyone. You are not to do anything [when you are on furlough],” he said. “The Saturday before I took my second week, I had a good tip for what turned out to be a really good series of stories, and I got in trouble for talking to the other reporter to let them know what I learned.”
Reading, writing and following the news is second nature to Whetstone, so turning that instinct off during furlough has been difficult. Growing up, his parents kept subscriptions to two local newspapers, and he said he thinks that constant engagement with information is what connected the dots between when he graduated high school and started college.
“I began thinking maybe I’d write about sports, but at Trevecca, I started writing about campus issues and policy,” he said. “One of the most impactful stories for me I think was when I was a junior, the first year I was editor [of the TrevEchoes]. It was right after the Tennessee Legislature passed the guns bill. Writing that story and talking to Dr. Boone, who was incredibly open and raw ... I think back to that story as being one of the better stories I’ve written in 10 years of writing. It was an example of a real-world problem that Trevecca had to address.”
Werking-Weedman says opportunities to report on those real-world issues are some of the best lessons a student can get.
“I think sometimes maybe what our incoming students haven’t considered—and one of my favorite concepts to introduce them to—is that being a journalist and a Christian makes a lot of sense. It truly is a vocational calling. Right now, we are living in a time of a global pandemic, of racism, of police brutality, and communities require information. I think what we try to do in our curriculum the best we can is what it means to be a truth-teller in your community, what it means to have to present stories to a diverse group of opinion,” she said. “We don’t buy into this idea that journalists are totally unbiased, neutral people. What we do buy into is that they are humans called by God to learn to serve their neighbors by reporting. We talk about ways they can intervene in their communities to tell the stories of the structures, of power, of the people these things impact. It’s service. And it’s entirely Christian.”
And Whetstone said it was his experience writing stories for the Trevecca community that prepared him to cover the stories he does now—even the ones about COVID-19.
“Covering the pandemic, there is no journalism school that will prepare you to cover that. Full stop. Whether you’re in New York or Nashville or Denver, there is nothing that will prepare you, but what you learn at Trevecca is how to ask good questions, to have empathy, to bring a personal lens to it and to ask really hard questions and know the answers that you’re getting and when to push back when you don’t get them,” he said.
Whetstone said he learned how to do all of those things at Trevecca because professors and administration trust the students with telling the stories of the University.
“I sincerely believe that Trevecca provided a space and an environment where I could learn what I was doing with the student newspaper, pushing me, and a safe place to make mistakes and ask questions. I don’t think there was any doubt,” he said. “I wasn’t working on a daily basis, but the stories we were writing and the questions we were asking were the same I’d ask now.”
Learn more about Trevecca’s multimedia journalism program.