UNC MJ-school partners with Olympic News Service for students to cover Olympic Games in Rio

Twenty-nine students traveled to Brazil with the UNC School of Media and Journalism to cover the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro in partnership with the Olympic News Service and the University of Memphis.

UNC and Memphis are the only two universities in the world that are working with the Olympic News Service at the Rio Olympics.

Roxane Coche, a 2013 doctoral graduate of the school — now an assistant professor at the University of Memphis — originally reached out to the Olympic organizing committee about needs for English speakers to help with media efforts. Coche, who is leading a group of 14 Memphis students in Rio, then made the connection with Charlie Tuggle, the UNC MJ-school's senior associate dean of undergraduate studies and Stembler Distinguished Professor, about the opportunity. Tuggle is leading the UNC contingent in Rio.

The program is offered through the UNC Study Abroad Office, and students earn three credit hours along with experience. An anonymous donor gave $50,000 to subsidize travel costs for students.

"This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for our students to have inside access, report on all of the action and interact with the athletes and international media outlets who will be there," said Susan King, dean of the MJ-school. "This is the kind of immersive, global learning experience we want for all of our students."

Most students are interning with the Olympic News Service to assist in coverage of the Olympics from the press center and the sport venues. Each student is given a specific sport to cover at a specific venue in addition to other assignments.

"Any time we do immersive experiences, we don't want money to get in the way of students participating," said Tuggle. "Thanks to the UNC Study Abroad Office and the anonymous donor, students from all backgrounds can take part."

"You cannot understand the energy of being in an Olympic venue. To be there when someone is being awarded a gold medal, you can't duplicate that feeling," said Tuggle. "Imagine being at the basketball venue and interviewing Harrison Barnes after he wins a gold medal. One of our students could do that. It's part of the global Tar Heel experience, and you can't beat that."

Four students will report on the Olympics for state media partners instead of interning with the Olympic News Service. Those media partners include the North Carolina News Network, The Herald-Sun, The News & Observer, the Greensboro News & Record, WNCN, WECT, WRAL, Univision40, BBGI and NCrunners.com. Students interning with the Olympic News Service will also contribute to reporting for those media partners.

"It works well with our Media Hub vision to partner with state media organizations and to get our students' work professionally published," said Tuggle. Media Hub is a capstone course at the school in which students work in cross-platform teams to find, gather and produce stories of state-wide importance for use by professional media outlets.

The 29 students were chosen from more than 50 students who applied and interviewed for a place in the program. Each specialization within the MJ-school is represented, and one student in the program is an exercise and sport science major at UNC. Five of the students are Tar Heel athletes.

"I can't even begin to describe how amazing this opportunity is," said Brett Thompson, a rising MJ-school senior majoring in broadcast journalism. "I'm going to Rio to cover the biggest sporting event in the world. I can't believe the university I dreamed of attending is sending me to work for the Olympics. The hands-on experience, the connections, the memories — I'm incredibly thankful for this chance."

The program began on Thursday, July 28, with training for students. The opening ceremony is on Friday, Aug. 5, and students will return on Sunday, Aug. 21.

The program is following guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the World Health Organization, the U.S. State Department and the UNC Study Abroad Office regarding concerns such as the Zika virus.

CORRECTION: This story was updated to indicate the partnership is with the Olympic News Service (not the U.S. Olympic Committee) and that it is not related to the UNC MJ-school's coverage of the 2008 Beijing Olympics.