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VCU InSight reporters cover the disappearance of Tangier Island

Apr 7, 2017

Posted in: News

It was an ambitious newsroom pitch: several student journalists would travel to an island to document how climate change and rising sea levels threatened its very existence.

And they’d have to pay for it.

Oh yeah, and they’d do it during spring break.

VCU InSight journalists Hiba Ahmad and John Hood shoot footage on the shores of Tangier Island
VCU InSight journalists Hiba Ahmad and John Hood shoot footage on the shores of Tangier Island

But that’s exactly how five Richard T. Robertson School of Media and Culture broadcast journalism students – and one journalism instructor – ended up on Tangier Island, which sits 14 miles off the coast of Virginia. The island, which has a population of around 450, could be uninhabitable in as little as 25 years, according to a report published in December of 2015

While on Tangier, student reporters interviewed the mayor, residents, environmental experts and high schoolers. It all came together in a three-part special report on “VCU InSight,”Robertson School’s award winning – and student-run – newscast. 

“We worked hard to make sure we covered every aspect and really got the story right,” said Alexandra Johnson, a VCU InSight multimedia journalist. She said seeing the dangers residents face on Tangier was an important experience as an aspiring journalist.

“To show that through a camera lens is an awesome opportunity that I may never have gotten otherwise,” Johnson said. "The trip just reminded me why I love journalism so much.”

Five students from VCU InSight - including (from right) Peyton Hannon, Alexandra Johnson, Kelvin Mines, Hiba Ahmad and John Hood - traveled to Tangier Island. VCU InSight Co-News Director Sean Collins-Smith, seen left, accompanied them.
Five students from VCU InSight - including (from right) Peyton Hannon, Alexandra Johnson, Kelvin Mines, Hiba Ahmad and John Hood - traveled to Tangier Island. VCU InSight Co-News Director Sean Collins-Smith, seen left, accompanied them.

Robertson School professor Sean Collins-Smith, also co-news director of “VCU InSight” and a former multimedia journalist with WWBT/NBC12, said he pitched the story after reading articles in publications as far-reaching as The New York Times and VCU’s own Capital News Service.

He didn’t get the response he expected.

“Their reactions blew me away,” Collins-Smith said.

“Usually if your opening remarks include ‘work during spring break’ and ‘you’ll have to pay for this’ then you’ve lost everybody. That wasn’t the case this time.”

Planning the trip proved challenging. Tangier Island is only accessible by boat or plane, and during the offseason the vast majority of boats are winterized and unavailable. His students made calls and eventually found a captain willing to take them to the island for a day.

The price tag: $85 per person.

Captain Billy D (left) shows off the Chesapeake Bay to VCU InSight journalists Alexandra Johnson and John Hood, and co-news director and Robertson School Professor Sean Collins-Smith. Tangier Island could be fully enveloped by the Chesapeake in as little as 25 years.
Captain Billy D (left) shows off the Chesapeake Bay to VCU InSight journalists Alexandra Johnson and John Hood, and co-news director and Robertson School Professor Sean Collins-Smith. Tangier Island could be fully enveloped by the Chesapeake in as little as 25 years.

“The logistics weren't easy, but I knew paying close to $100 for the experience would be worth it,” said InSight journalist Peyton Hannon. “In a time when climate change is apparently up for debate, there's an entire piece of Virginia being immediately affected by it. I wanted to jump on the opportunity to tell their story.”

When they arrived, the students fanned out across the island in teams. Some spoke with residents, while others attended a meeting hosted by the town’s mayor, James Eskridge. The meeting’s purpose was simple but urgent: hammering out short- and long-term solutions for saving Tangier Island from sinking into the Chesapeake Bay.

“It really showed me how serious the situation was and how quickly they needed to act to save the remaining land,” said InSight MMJ Kelvin Mines, who covered the meeting.

“Hearing the townspeople and environmentalists break down the steps and plans to save Tangier from erosion and rising sea levels really made me want to get this story out,” Mines said.

VCU InSight journalist Alexandra Johnson shoots footage on a bridge in the middle of Tangier Island.
VCU InSight journalist Alexandra Johnson shoots footage on a bridge in the middle of Tangier Island.

That meeting served as the focus for the first of three stories “InSight” would produce about Tangier, with the other two looking at how regulations have affected the island and life in the town overall. In addition, students produced a 5-part photographic miniseries for Instagram and multiple video teases for Facebook (seen here and here).

It was the most ambitious undertaking in “VCU InSight” history, something which helped convince InSight MMJ Hiba Ahmad to travel with the group.

“I looked at it as an opportunity to push myself out of my comfort zone,” Ahmad said. “It was an eye-opening experience. I was able to meet individuals and share their narratives that I otherwise wouldn't have been exposed to, and I can genuinely say that I have grown as a journalist.”

She added that encountering new perspectives is critical to getting better in the field.

“Tangier Island will always be a reminder to myself to go the extra mile - sometimes even a hundred - to get a good story.”


To view the Tangier Island special report watch below:

 Be sure to follow VCU InSight on Facebook and Instagram for the latest updates.

VCU InSight airs every two weeks on PBS, Fridays and Mondays at 7 p.m.