Letters from the professors: Gina Lew and Esteban del Rio
Gina Lew is a former anchor and reporter for network and local news organizations with two decades of experience. Lew is a professor of practice in the communication studies department, and she serves as the student media advisor.
News gathering isn’t always pretty. And it’s not always easy. But it is always a responsibility, both personally and socially. Reporters, photojournalists, editors all make up the Fourth Estate.
We are the watchdogs who dig, pursue, and push for information for the public. That way, citizens can be informed and make up their own minds about issues and events. That’s the foundation for a democracy.
Our First Amendment covers the following freedoms: speech, assembly, religion, petition, and press. The students, staff, and faculty of the University of Missouri were in a public space. That’s exactly what allowed them to gather, erect their tents, and send out their messages.
Through their activism and commitment, they were able to call for and bring about change.
As news events unfolded, the media were there. The Mizzou video shows what can happen when emotions take over reason. Even if some of the protesters didn’t want the media there, the photojournalists had a right to be there. In the video, the photojournalist keeps trying to explain that. His message is ignored.
Frank LoMonte is the executive director of the Student Press Law Center. He points out the photojournalist was not in the wrong.
“[The photojournalist] knew and respectfully asserted his right to document events visible from a public space where he was legally entitled to stand,” LoMonte said.
What journalists do isn’t always popular. Thankfully, since we’re not elected officials, we don’t have to be. We do have to get the facts, be truthful, be balanced, be fair, and give context to our pieces. That means we have to be persistent in getting the story.
That’s what the Mizzou tape shows. Some in the crowd didn’t like it, but the photojournalists were simply doing their jobs. People can decline to comment to reporters.
But the media cannot be boxed out or dismissed or asked to leave a public place simply because some folks don’t like what they’re doing.
Andrea Frantz is a professor at Buena Vista University who specializes in the First Amendment and the media.
She questions the University of Missouri’s professor’s actions to tell the student reporter to get out and call for muscle.
“Her responsibility was to not only set the tone for civil and open discourse as a faculty leader, but she also had a responsibility to advocate for and understand what a free press is,” Frantz said. “She did not.”
A lot of people don’t like reporters. And that’s okay. Sometimes that means we’re doing our jobs well.
I was a street reporter for nearly two decades in San Diego and Los Angeles. There was a time when news crews frequently tangled with law enforcement.
Many times we got to breaking news stories before the police perimeter tape had been established. We were very close to unfolding unpredictable volatile news events. Some law enforcement tried to force us to relocate blocks away from the SWAT incident for safety reasons. The relocation spot would not allow us to see and record what was happening.
Since we were on a public street, we refused to move. Arguments were nose to nose, chest to chest, toe to toe, and heated. In some cases, members of the media were arrested. We pushed back, citing freedom of the press.
Eventually after many meetings, a détente was reached. If news crews were in position before police perimeter tape was put up, law enforcement could request that the media relocate for safety reasons. That served their responsibility to cover public safety.
However, the media had the option to acknowledge the request and stay put. That allowed us to preserve our right to freedom of the press and allowed us to do our jobs.
The police didn’t like it. But the public got to see news events reported on by the media. Police were held more accountable.
That’s our responsibility as reporters for a free press. That’s what the media push to do because the public has a right to know. You as a citizen have the right to know. Then, make up your own mind.
I tell my students and student media that there is a fence of morality. Each person will sit on a different spot on that fence depending on his or her own sensitivities and sensibilities. I ask that each understand and respect the responsibility and the privilege of being a news gatherer.
I want them to push, pursue, and persist in every story they are working on. It’s not always pretty. And, at times, it is very difficult. But I want them to push back and push on. My hope is they fight the good fight for themselves and always for the public. It’s what keeps us informed and makes us a democracy.
I believe the fight is always worth it.
Esteban del Río, Ph.D. is an associate professor in the communication studies department and the director of the Center for Inclusion and Diversity.
My friend and colleague, Melissa Click, was being clobbered. I spent much of Tuesday following the story of a tumultuous week at the University of Missouri, amazed how a student group, called #concernedstudent1950, persists in its critique of the racial climate at Mizzou.
But Click, an Assistant Professor in the Department of Communication at the campus, became embroiled in a terrible predicament. She appeared in a video found on YouTube, shot last Monday by a student journalist named Mark Schierbecker, which showed photojournalist, Mizzou senior, and ESPN stringer Tim Tai tangling with activists and allies on the quad.
For the sake of fairness, let’s advance a counter narrative for the Click affair: a no-press perimeter was established by student protesters and passionate student advocates, which was violated by student journalists, who proceeded to use press freedom to bully their way through and claim righteousness over individuals and groups struggling for equity.
Scratching your head? If this counter narrative appears completely implausible to readers, then we have come to a tragic misunderstanding of journalism: rights have trumped responsibilities while marginalized groups struggle to claim cultural citizenship. It seems like most accounts have settled for the dominant narrative that this professor and the student movement acted irresponsibly.
#concernedstudent1950 had finished statements earlier in the day and sought downtime in their tent encampment, initiating a no media policy on the surrounding grass area. This may seem ill advised, but keep in mind that, while radio silence may not be recommended by public relations professionals, it is not an uncommon strategy in corporate or government organizations. Students, staff, and faculty formed a perimeter to force journalists out of the area, pushing Tai away as he fruitlessly pled the case for press freedom.
A fuller version of the video appeared later in the day. In it, Click chases Schierbecker out of the circle. Her misstatement that she needed some muscle, or support from other protesters in forcing Schierbecker from a perimeter, will likely haunt her more than anyone.
Click was confrontational and directive, with weeks and months of student advocacy fueling the moment. Schierbecker also behaved in a confrontational and provocative manner, seemingly driven by the story. This incident appears to fall into tidy oppositions, but truth is rarely so simple.
News does not fall from the sky but is constructed through routines, habits, and values specific to journalists. Accordingly, journalists tend to understand stories from the perspective of journalists: here, Click unequivocally infringed on the First Amendment rights of freedom of the press.
Rights function as instrumental tools used in gaining access and protection in newsgathering. It’s a storyline that quickly captures journalists’ attention.
Tai and Schierbecker attempted to exercise their rights to go where they pleased on public property, they worked within their rights to capture images of whom they pleased, and Schierbecker acted out his right to badger news subjects for interviews.
But quality journalism depends on responsibility as much as it depends on rights.
The prudent question is not so much if Tai and Schierbecker were within their rights to pursue the story on public property. This has a simple answer: yes. Rather, we should ask whether it was responsible to persist with uncooperative sources who stated plainly and repeatedly that there would be neither further comment nor access.
In many ways, the student journalists’ persistence provoked news by creating a confrontation while other journalists melted into the background. Tenacity may indeed get the story, but it may not be the story originally sought.
Perhaps Tai will learn this on his path to what looks like a successful career in photojournalism. He remarked on Twitter, after all, that it was slightly unsettling to see himself as a part of the story.
Nowhere does the Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics encourage journalists to persist and badger. Rather, they are called to be courageous and are reminded that the “pursuit of the news is not a license for arrogance or undue intrusiveness.” Criticism has focused on Clicks’ individual responsibility.
Indeed, Click made mistakes, issuing an apology stating that she regretted the language and strategies that she had used in the situation. However, attention to journalistic responsibility could lead us to a much larger conversation about events at Mizzou.
Responsible journalism earns trust. Rights-based journalism does no such thing. The idea that journalists are largely untrusted by black and Latina/o communities provides context for the grassy no media zone.
Rights-based journalism provoked outrage at Click and others who limited press access. However, every time there is a press conference, media event, or photo-op, journalists are provided limited access to sources.
This kind of control and infringement of press rights is something that journalists give concessions to everyday, and in every city and town in the U.S., in order to get access to newsmakers, that is officials, corporate leaders, spokespeople, press secretaries, or community leaders. Why would journalists believe they are entitled to total access to non-official sources? Why would observers explode in anger when the methods of control are not as sophisticated, institutional, or insidious but amateur and direct? Why not redirect this energy toward the events of the day, where the facts themselves are woefully underreported for a national story.
When utilized by the marginalized or their allies, press management is viewed with outrage by the very institution that should safeguard the powerless: the news. That may be their right, but far from responsible.