Student Protestors and the Media: It's Complicated
Protests took place last month at the University of Missouri, led by a group known as Concerned Student 1950, a reference to the year the university was forced to integrate and admitted its first student of color. These protests included a hunger strike and a football strike, as well as ongoing marches. The main goal? Get President Tim Wolfe to resign in lieu of rising racial tension across the campus. These protests brought many important issues to the forefront surrounding racial equality on campus, but out of this also came an unexpected controversy: the treatment of the press on university campuses.
The University of Missouri has notably one of the best journalism schools in the country. Students flock to Columbia, Mo., from all over to receive an education from award-winning professors. Along with this education, many students learn from real life experience. These protests were an opportunity for budding journalists to cover a real story on their own campus.
Protesting students at Mizzou were successful, forcing UM President Wolfe to resign from his position on Monday, Nov. 9. But this wouldn’t have been possible without the local and national attention received from so many outlets, including the on-campus media outlets, as well as ESPN, the New York Times, and CNN, along with numerous others.
In the wake of Wolfe’s resignation there were cheers and the rolls of cameras and click of shutters documenting what some are saying to be one of the most historical events at this university. Everything was peaceful until protestors started chanting, “hey, hey, ho, ho, reporters have got to go.” Some students, staff and faculty formed a large circle around the makeshift campsite the protestors had been living in to keep journalists from getting too close.
In an effort to do their jobs, and do them well, journalists continued to get closer to the action in an attempt to document history. So why were people throwing up their hands in an effort to block them? Why was there so much fear of and disdain for the same media that brought the national attention needed for the students to achieve their goal?
Throughout history, journalists and activist movements have had a symbiotic relationship, although not always a pleasant one. In the past, journalists have reported with an air of bias, especially when dealing with people of color. Take school shootings, for example. When a black person is accused, he’s deemed a “thug,” but when a white person is, he’s called “mentally ill.” Though their hesitation is warranted, without the press, these movements wouldn’t gain any attention. The activists need the journalists almost as much as the journalists need the activists.
At Mizzou, protestors were concerned that the media would twist their story into something it was not, much like it has been done in the past. Even so, turning them away only invited a new dialogue of suppressing the freedom of the press.
The fact is, without Mizzou being boosted onto a national platform, the change probably wouldn’t have been made.
All around the campsite were handmade poster board signs with phrases such as “No Media Safe Space” and “Media Stay off the Grass.” The protest was held on Carnahan Quad, a public area at a public university funded by taxpayer dollars. These protestors had no right to delegate where journalists could and couldn’t be, given where they decided to protest. Their right to be there was covered by the First Amendment, as was journalists’.
As reporters closed in, physical and verbal confrontations ensued. Student journalists, as well as professionals, were shoved out of the way, told they had no right to be there and were continually denied access to the scene unfolding in front of them. Even more astounding was when faculty members swooped in to deny the rights of these students.
A communications professor was recorded saying she needed “muscle” to help forcibly remove a student from the area who was on assignment for ESPN to take photos of the celebration of the resignation. Previous to her doing this, she posted a message on Facebook asking for help in getting this story national attention. The double standard this poses is intolerable, and honestly a bit dumbfounding.
With the start of this movement, schools across the country have taken to social media to show they are standing in solidarity with Mizzou. The oppression students are facing every day is an important dialogue that needs to be had, but it makes it more difficult to stimulate when the main way of letting people know about it is denied. And in some of those schools, the same problems with the First Amendment have occurred. A student at Loyola University in Chicago also denied access to journalists, forming a circle around protestors, much like those at MU did.
Student protests aren’t a new thing, nor are they strictly in the U.S., as they take place all over the world. Many of these took place in the ‘60s and ‘70s as a result of the Civil Rights Movement, wars and women’s rights and the Gay Liberation Movement. Much like what was seen at Mizzou, these students evoked change and forced people to take a step back and think twice about what was at hand.
As a journalism student, it makes me sick. We are at this university to learn and to grow, and a learning experience this was. No professor, especially one in the communications field, should ever try to stop students from learning. What’s the point of being an educator if that’s what you’re going to do? Protestors should have voiced ahead of time their concerns and why they thought this way, so as to give the press an idea of what they’d be up against. This way, “boundaries” could have been set and there wouldn’t have been as much confusion.
Though I wasn’t thrust into the action, I was a bystander. To see my peers be jostled about in that way was absolutely unacceptable. Without these frontline journalists, this story would never even have broken. It’s those at the university’s platforms of KOMU, The Maneater, The Missourian and all those who took to social media to help gain national attention.
The signs demanding media to stay away have been removed, but it’s hard to excuse the acts. Concerned Student 1950 said it considers how this was handled as a teachable moment, but it’s hard for me to see it that way. As long as the media was professional, the members should have welcomed the journalists to learn more about their cause and inform the public on it. Instead, they created a spectacle and, in my opinion, made themselves look bad through their actions. It’s completely absurd that they would do what they could to draw these outlets to the middle of Missouri, and then follow by demanding them to leave.
Journalists are often considered the fourth branch of government because we hold everyone else accountable for their actions. This is a prime example. We helped nationalize the fact that Wolfe needed to be held accountable for his actions, which he was, but it’s also time that the protestors realize they can’t control the message. Journalists are not there to attack you. There’s a difference between press and paparazzi. They are there because they feel your story is important enough to tell, and they need help telling that story, but they can’t without your compliance. Journalists are not the enemy. But in order to open those doors and gain back the trust of those in various movements, we do have to show why our presence matters so much.