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U-Md. student journalist thrown into coverage of international story

Ruben Castaneda

University of Maryland junior Ben Present was attending a fraternity meeting on April 12 when an editor at the Diamondback, the university's student newspaper, called him on his mobile phone.

A member of the Diamondback's reporting staff, Present was assigned to the facilities management and dining services beat at the time. But the paper's usual police reporter was hospitalized with a stomach ailment, and news editor Marissa Lang asked Present if he'd be up for covering a breaking crime story.

Sure, said Present.

That's how Present, 21, was thrown into what quickly became an international story: the March incident in which University of Maryland student John J. McKenna was beaten by Prince George's County police in riot gear -- an incident captured on videotape, which quickly went viral.

Present (Courtesy Jackie Borowski/The Diamondback)

It's been a heady experience for Present.

"It's definitely been exciting, getting out there and reporting with people who have been doing it for years," Present said. "Covering a story that isn't just pertinent to those on campus, but to everybody, has been a real thrill."

In the course of his reporting, Present said, representatives from the local CBS and Fox news affiliates have contacted him to ask how to reach people he has quoted. "For me, that verifies ... our reporting," Present said. "That was a cool feeling."

Lang called Present on the day attorneys for McKenna, 21, and fellow student Benjamin C. Donat, 19, released the video showing the beating.

Police had charged McKenna and Donat with acting in concert to attack police officers on horseback and their mounts. Charging documents sworn out by a county officer said that McKenna and Donat had been injured by police horses.

Before the video was released, county prosecutors dropped charges against the two students. Four county officers have been suspended with pay, and are under investigation by the police department, the state's attorney's office and the FBI.

Since he was summoned by Lang, Present has written 11 stories on the beating. In addition to chronicling daily developments in the story, Present wrote a story about the student who videotaped the incident.

Lang, who became editor-in-chief of the Diamondback on May 1, said she asked Present if he wanted the story because "Ben has always been very eager. If you give him something to do, he will just jump on it."

When Present quickly connected with sources, Lang said, she decided to keep him on the story.

The Diamondback typically publishes five days a week during the school semester, and once a week during the summer.

Present, of Philadelphia, will be taking a break from the story after the semester ends May 19. This summer, he will be interning on the sports desk of the Harrisburg Patriot-Ledger.

After that, Present plans to become the Diamondback's police and crime reporter in the fall.

"Throughout the course of this story, I've built relationships with university police and county police," Present said. "I think I've gained their trust. Maybe the stories I write won't always be flattering, but they will always be fair."

In the long term, Present said he hope to land a job as a journalist after graduating, which he plans to do next year.

"I am looking to get a job in reporting," Present said. "I have a particular interest in sports, but I've found that any subject I go out and report on, I end up developing an interest in."

-- Ruben Castaneda

By Ruben Castaneda  |  May 11, 2010; 11:10 AM ET
Categories:  Pr. George's , Ruben Castaneda , Schools  | Tags: Prince George's County police, police brutality  
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