Both protesters at the University of Missouri and ESPN freelance photographer Tim Tai made a lot of mistakes in a widely discussed confrontation caught on video. The clip shows him approaching a group of Mizzou students celebrating the firing of Mizzou President Tim Wolfe after an emotionally charged week of protests in which students of color relived their experiences of racial discrimination on campus. After a protest representative asks Tai to leave, he refuses, saying he’s a reporter doing his job. Then the crowd grows more agitated, and he is shoved. Not surprisingly, the media overwhelmingly took the side of the young reporter.
While neither side acted appropriately, it’s clear that both the media and the protesters have a lot to improve on. The protesters shouldn’t have pushed Tai, and he shouldn’t have inserted himself into a group of private citizens when they didn’t consent to have their pictures taken.
In observing the reaction to the fray as an activist with a bachelor’s degree in journalism from Morehead State University in Kentucky, I could take either side. And to everyone who says it’s impossible to be on both, let’s be honest; many journalists have an agenda. Whether it’s Matt Taibbi exposing the greed and corruption of Wall Street, Glenn Greenwald shining a light on the illegality of the modern surveillance state or Rebecca Solnit calling out the recklessness of the fossil fuel industry, we’ve all got our biases, and each of us has built a brand and an audience as a result of that agenda, including me. Protesters at the University of Missouri campus have a right to question the personal agenda of any journalist sticking a camera in their face.
As an activist, I’ve been the subject of many hostile interviews by corporate media reporters sent to protests with the goal of delegitimizing, discrediting and demonizing our cause and our comrades. While supporting a May Day protest in Detroit in 2014, a white reporter with Fox 2 Detroit asked me — a very white person in a crowd of black people — my opinion on Rep. John Conyers’ bill to give reparations to descendants of slaves, phrasing it as “Do you think it’s a good idea to give black people free money?” I explained that, in my opinion, it would be a tremendous boost to the economy and would likely create lots of jobs. Not surprisingly, the station left my interview out of the reporter’s segment.
At the same time, we journalists have not only the constitutional right to do our job but also the duty to report the biggest news of the day to our readers. Our editors have a right to send us to these locations with a microphone and camera handy, and we have the right to ask questions that people may or may not want to answer. One of the most important aspects of a healthy democracy is free media, with journalists able to access public documents, question public officials and document events that have a profound impact on our communities. Our purpose as an institution is to create national conversations about the most controversial issues of the day, which leads to more civic engagement, which creates tremendous value. In that respect, Mizzou protesters’ infringement of Tai’s First Amendment rights hurts us all.
Ultimately, there are lessons that both sides need to learn. One of the first things I learned in journalism school was to distinguish public figures from private ones — with the latter having protections not granted to the former. The Digital Media Law Project illustrates the differences between public figures and private figures in this chart. Wolfe qualifies as a public figure, as he was the face of a public institution and was paid a significant salary with taxpayer dollars. While the Mizzou students built their tent city on campus in a public university, they are still private citizens expressing their rights and aren’t obligated to speak to journalists or consent to photographs if they aren’t comfortable doing so. If I had been in Tai’s position, I would have done my best to acknowledge that those private figures didn’t give their consent to be quoted or have their picture taken and that I should move on.
But one of the lessons I learned as an activist is that you should always be prepared to accommodate the media. As an activist, your goal is to change public policy and perception, and the media are among the most effective tools for accomplishing that goal. Before staging a protest, activists should always select people trained to speak on camera and have those individuals be designated media representatives. This step not only helps you get your message across when presented with a microphone but also protects members of your group who are unwilling or unable to speak on the record.
Journalists should, however, learn to find a healthy balance between doing their jobs effectively and being decent human beings. If someone under immense stress is asking that you not stick a microphone or a camera in his or her face and if that one person’s perspective isn’t absolutely essential to telling the story, then respect that person and find someone else to talk to. Tears and emotion may be great for ratings and clicks, but a sensitive 19-year-old who has undergone and recently relived an incredible amount of racial hatred and abuse doesn’t have an obligation to endure your pointed questions for the satisfaction of your editors and advertisers.
Likewise, activists should never, under any circumstances, publicly vilify the media. Pissing off the media is the best way to turn the public against you. Concerned Student 1950 protesters, who initially crafted a list of demands to university leadership calling for racial justice and Wolfe’s resignation, made a tactical error by turning the media into the enemy, because the media may now tend to view those protesters as adversaries in their stories. Providing a safe space for protesters to be alone is fine, but have designated media representatives at that safe space to protect those who need privacy.
The events at Mizzou have been educational for both student protesters and reporters. Regardless of how this situation plays out, it will undoubtedly spark many lively debates in journalism schools across America for decades to come.