Student protesters’ toppling of University of Missouri president Tim Wolfe last week has shone a media spotlight on racial tensions on college campuses across the country. The hotbeds include my alma mater, Ithaca College, where more than 1,000 students walked out of class last Wednesday to protest racism and demand the resignation of president Tom Rochon. Faculty members plan to hold a no-confidence vote on Rochon later this month.
Covering the events presents obvious challenges for IC’s student journalists. Chris Wheatley, the faculty adviser to the campus television station, ICTV, and radio station, WICB-FM, told me “the students have made it clear that they want to at least give the outward appearance of being neutral. They just want to report the stories and not be seen as advocating one side or the other.”
Senior Kira Maddox, the student editor of the campus newspaper, the Ithacan, has a similar goal. But she’s in a particularly tricky spot.
“I am also a student of color and a sociology minor,” Maddox said. “I generally know the conversations going on about racial inequality on a national level.”
The Fix spoke with Maddox about how she’s steering the Ithacan’s coverage of campus protests. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
THE FIX: What’s the backstory here? Are these protests mimicking what happened at Missouri, or has this been going on for a while?
MADDOX: Last semester, there were a number of protests on campus that coincided with the national Black Lives Matter movement. It was a group of students of color protesting, wanting more awareness of police brutality in general but also wanting to make the campus aware of its own racial issues. Then, at the beginning of this year, there were a number of protests by resident assistants who said that during their training, two public safety officers had said some problematic things. In one case, they were going over weapons that aren’t allowed on campus that RAs should be aware of, and an officer, according to the RAs we’ve spoken with, picked up a BB gun and said, “If I saw someone holding this, I would shoot them.” Given other instances of people of color being shot while unarmed or holding BB guns, that was something a lot of RAs of color had a problem with.
THE FIX: There are benefits and drawbacks to being students covering your peers. On one hand, you know the campus more intimately than anyone on the outside. On the other, the personal connections you have to friends and classmates can complicate things, right?
MADDOX: It’s definitely a line that we do have to walk. Fortunately, I work with a very professional editorial board that takes journalism very seriously. They know where to draw the line between, “Oh, I know this person as a friend” and “This is my job as a journalist.” I think it’s only helped us.
THE FIX: How do your personal experiences and studies inform your editing?
MADDOX: Having that insight has helped me guide the staff as far as word choice or how to describe things. We have to be very careful to not come across as accusatory in our reporting and not say, “Public safety officers racially profile students.” Because we can’t prove that. We have a lot of conversations about wording.
THE FIX: Have protesters wanted your coverage to be more forceful?
MADDOX: Sometimes people don’t understand why we have to use language a certain way. Sometimes people look at our reporting and are like, “We talked about this, and I told you this happened, so why are you saying it’s only ‘alleged?'” That happened a little bit. It was a rough patch, but it didn’t really affect how we did our jobs. I think people eventually realized we’re journalists at the end of the day. I mean we are students, but we also have to act professionally.
THE FIX: At Missouri, which has a respected journalism program of its own, part of the story became a communication professor who was pretty aggressive in trying to stop a student journalist from covering protesters. Has your staff encountered anything like that?
MADDOX: To a significantly less serious degree — and not from faculty. At the beginning, the POC at IC [People of Color at Ithaca College] group said they wanted to control the narrative and didn’t want things to get twisted or misconstrued by talking to media outlets. Not just us, but all media. But they’ve been willing to work with us to some extent. I think this is where being students as well as journalists has helped us. They won’t necessarily give us interviews, but they might agree to release a statement. They won’t tell us what their plans are, as far as any protests are concerned, but they might tell us, “You might want to have a camera ready at this place at this time.”
THE FIX: A recent story in your paper noted that racial minorities have doubled as a share of the overall student population in the past 10 years. Is that why we’re seeing action now?
MADDOX: It’s a combination of things. There are more students of color on campus, so those students now have other people to talk to and rely on when they are going through problems related to their race or ethnic background. I also think as a nation -- or maybe just as a generation -- there’s less that people are willing to put up with. You can see it in the rise of discussions around microaggressions. Years ago, people would experience microaggressions and just accept them as the way life is. Now, more people are saying, “Hey, that’s not okay. It was offensive or potentially racist or homophobic or sexist” or whichever category it falls into and aren’t standing for it anymore.