Video of a confrontation between a news photographer and protesters at the University of Missouri on Monday led to a dispute between journalists and the activists’ sympathizers beyond the campus walls. In response to a series of racial issues at the university, a circle of arm-linked students sought to designate a “safe space” around an encampment on the campus quad. When they blocked journalist Tim Tai from photographing the encampment, reporters complained that media were denied access to a public space.
Certainly, Tai – like any journalist – had a legal right to enter the space, given that it was in a public area. But that shouldn’t be the end of this story. We in the media have something important to learn from this unfortunate exchange. The protesters had a legitimate gripe: The black community distrusts the news media because it has failed to cover black pain fairly.
As a journalist, I understand how frustrating it is to be denied access to a person or place that’s essential to my story. I appeared with other journalists on local media in New York City to discuss our frustration over Mayor Bill de Blasio’s sometimes standoffish attitude towards the press. He is a public figure whose salary is paid with tax dollars. He is obligated to be accessible to us.
The student protesters Tai encountered, though, didn’t owe him anything. They did not represent a government entity stonewalling access to public information. They were not public officials hiding from media questions. They were young people trying to build a community free not only of the racism that has recently wracked Mizzou’s campus but also of the insensitivity they encounter in the news media: Newspapers, Web sites and TV commentary had already been filled by punditry telling black students to “toughen up” and “grow a pair.” Then, in the noisy conversation about First Amendment rights that Tai elicited, journalists compounded the insult by drowning out the very message of the students Tai was covering.
As journalists, we should strive to understand the motivations of the people we cover. In this case, black students at the University of Missouri have had a string of racist encounters on campus: The president of the students’ association was called the n-word and other black students have been racially harassed while participating in campus activities. A Missouri journalism professor wrote in the Huffington Post that she has been called the n-word “too many times to count” during her 18 years at the university. In February 2010, black students woke up to cotton balls strewn over on the lawn of the black culture center on campus. The crime, carried out by white students, was designed to invoke plantation slavery. University president Tim Wolfe resigned Monday after graduate student Jonathan Butler went on a hunger strike and the school’s football players boycotted team activities to protest the very public racism he and many black students believe the school did little to address.
Establishing a “safe space” was about much more than denying the media access; it was about securing a zone where students’ blackness could not be violated. Yes, the hunger strike, the safe space and other demonstrations were protests, and protests should be covered. But what was fueling those protests was black pain. In most circumstances, when covering people who are in pain, journalists offer extra space and empathy. That didn’t happen in this case; these young people weren’t treated as hurting victims. Instead, after the confrontation with Tai, aggrieved journalists responded with a ferocity usually reserved for powerful entities with the means to inflict lasting damage on their First Amendment rights.
This wasn’t a problem with Tai’s character or his journalistic integrity; he was doing his job, and his past outstanding work speaks for itself. But in this conversation over “public space,” we’ve overlooked the protesters’ message — that conditions on campus make it an unbearable environment for black students to live and learn in. Their approach to creating a safe space should have been better conceived, but reporters should also feel a responsibility to try to understand and respect their pain, instead of rushing to judge them and panicking about an imagined assault on press freedoms.
Further, as reporters, we have to drop our sense of entitlement and understand that not everyone wants to be subjects of our journalism. Our press passes don’t give us the license to bully ourselves into any and all spaces where our presence is not appreciated. It’s one thing to demand access to public lands; it’s another to demand access to people’s grieving.
In many communities that historically have been marginalized and unfairly portrayed by the media, there’s good reason people do not trust journalists: They often criminalize black people’s pain and resistance to racial oppression. We saw it in coverage of Ferguson and Baltimore, when news stations seemed more concerned with the property damage than with the emotional damage that prompted it. Though peaceful protests in Ferguson had been going on for days, reporters didn’t descend on the town in large numbers until there were clashes with police. Suddenly, coverage spiked, but most of it was about “cars vandalized” and “buildings burned.” On Fox News, the channel most watched for Ferguson coverage at the height of the unrest, protesters were called “thugs.” Reporting from the protests, CNN’s Don Lemon noted, “Obviously, there’s a smell of marijuana in the air.” We heard comparatively little about the residents’ long-held grievances about police harassment and brutality.
The unfair portrayal of black people in the news media is well documented. One study analyzing news coverage by 26 local television stations, black people were rarely portrayed unless they had committed a crime. A 2015 University of Houston study found that this imbalanced coverage may lead viewers to develop racial bias against black people because it often over-represents them in crime rates. Recognizing this kind of bias in news media, black Twitter users started the #IfTheyGunnedMeDown hashtag to call out news images of Mike Brown that many felt criminalized him in his death.
That black students would be skeptical of media is understandable. We’ve already seen the kind of headlines they undoubtedly feared. In an Atlantic piece headlined “Campus Activists Weaponize ‘Safe Space’,” Conor Friedersdorf calls the protesters a mob and insists they are “twisting the concept of ‘safe space.’” Again, a journalist criminalizes black people for expressing their pain. It was another piece centering the reporter’s privilege over the students’ trauma. Friederdorf’s piece completely ignores the intolerable racial climate that forced the students to establish a safe space in the first place.
There were other ways to cover these students’ protest without breaching their safe space and without criminalizing them.The human chain students formed provided ample b-roll and still photos. Students could have been interviewed outside of that space. I would have pitched a story to my editors with the headline, “Why Black Students Were Forced To Secure A Safe Space On A Public Campus.” But to do that requires self-reflection and not a condescending, self-absorbed soliloquy about the First Amendment.
For journalists, the Missouri protests are a big news story. For the black students we’re covering, however, it’s a fight for their humanity and liberation. Tai is correct: he was doing his job. But in that stressful moment he may have failed to realize that the space he wanted to enter was a healing one that black people had worked to secure.
Black pain is not an easy subject to cover, but the lesson we can take from this encounter at Missouri is that our presence as journalists, with the long legacy of criminalizing blackness that comes with it, may trigger the same harmful emotions that led to the students’ protests in the first place.
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