Column: To journalists covering Mizzou protests, please take a breath

Embrace complexity; sometimes a story is about more than right and wrong.

During Monday’s protests on Carnahan Quad, student protesters and faculty members clashed with reporters, notably a student photographer, over the protesters’ right to privacy. They attempted to restrict media with signs reading “No Media, Safe Space” or by physically restraining reporters by forming a human circle around the quad.

Most columns are arguments, but this isn’t an argument. It’s not as simple as right and wrong, one side or another. This is a plea. Not to see things my way or your way or their way, but in multiple ways. Let us strive for empathy in our thoughts and actions.

First things first, the behavior of the protesters and the university employees who aided them was illegal. MU is a public university, and Carnahan Quad is a public space. The First Amendment guarantees journalists the same rights to that ground as the protesters and gives the protesters no right to restrain the journalists in any way. That much is inarguable.

However, let’s ask all the indignant journalists to put away their newfound law degrees for a moment and think beyond what’s legal.

Try to put yourself in the shoes of a young protester or a college professor trying to shield those young protesters, especially protesters who are young, black and have something to say. They’re trying to have a human moment of celebration with the other people who engineered their victory, not the journalists who want to cover their victory. Wouldn’t you be scared of putting your message in the hands of a largely white group of professionals that has no apparent interest, other than their own good faith and professional responsibilities, to tell your stories accurately?

“There’s a lot of mistrust,” said Cristina Mislan, an assistant professor at the School of Journalism. “We (minorities) don’t necessarily always trust mainstream media to tell our stories the way we think they should be told because the history shows us that, time and again, we’ve had narratives that have demonized us or made us into violent people. There are so many different stereotypes, and those stereotypes continue to be told (in the mainstream media). And we know those stereotypes because we live them.”

Dr. Mislan teaches courses on qualitative research methods and cross-cultural journalism. She feels people of color and entire communities remember the mainstream media coverage of past protest movements.

“That mistrust comes from that historical relationship,” Mislan said. “We have concrete examples of it in Ferguson and Baltimore, and we know that — these communities know that. It’s kind of public knowledge.”

You can’t possibly understand what they’re going through unless you’ve been where they are, but you can try to cover the gap in understanding with empathy rather than aggression. Those people often suffer from misrepresentation in the media, and it’s not unreasonable for them to be wary of such misrepresentation here and now. Are you, as journalists, prepared to vilify a movement over the understandable, while perhaps ill-conceived, actions of a few well-intentioned protesters?

This is the point at which all journalists say, “Well, I’m not racist!” or “Well, I only want to tell their stories!” But how can they know that? How can they differentiate between those who intend to do good, honest work and those with an agenda? They can’t.

That’s not a personal indictment against individual journalists, but against the depictions of people of color in mainstream media. Think of how media, even beyond Fox News, portrayed those riots and protests in Ferguson and Baltimore over the past year. CNN and NBC, as mainstream as any media outlets, were just as guilty of searching out conflict for their viewers who expected to see angry young black men. Why should these protesters expect to be covered differently?

I know, you, the journalists, were trying to cover it fairly and accurately. I know you were trying to document important events in the history of this university. I know the protesters made serious mistakes, mostly choosing a public space and yet still expecting absolute privacy on their terms. I know you had no intentions of telling a slanted story or portraying these protesters in a certain way. But look around at some of the coverage of these events already (see: Travis, Clay and Review, National). Maybe some media members were.

“Context, context, context,” Mislan said.

There aren’t two sides to every story. Sometimes someone is wrong and someone is right. But this isn’t one of those times; there are two sides to this story. Both are worth acknowledging and trying to understand.

Please, journalists, try not to make the story about your frustrations or your jobs. Not everything illegal is inherently wrong, not everything wrong is inherently illegal.

Empathy, empathy, empathy.

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