I sent an email to our editorial staff today about the recent controversy over University of Missouri protesters' requests that media stay away from their encampment. This post is a slightly expanded version of that message. We know many journalists are thinking about these issues, and this is part of how we're grappling with them in all of their complexity.
It's about power and time. Specifically, who has power over what period of time, and what does that mean for our journalistic posture?
Let me explain. We all saw the controversy around the media presence at the University of Missouri. And I wanted to say a couple things about it, not because they apply to our reporting in this particular situation, but because we cover a lot of protests, and they're tricky.
Like many journalists, the NO MEDIA signs the protesters put up made me bristle, as did the video of the protesters pushing back Tim Tai, the photographer. We know from personal experience that perseverance and implacability in the face of powerful entities (be they politicians or corporations) is sometimes the only way to get the story. Obstinacy and doggedness — just not giving up — tend to be hallmarks of great journalists. But the more I thought about what I was watching and feeling, the more complex the situation became.
Journalists seek out the powerful and try to understand and hold them to account. That's the job. And, yes, in that moment, surrounded by protesters, the journalist was standing up to a powerful group. When they prevent him from taking pictures, then physically overpower him, what journalist wouldn't feel empathy and anger?
But let's think about power and time here. In the long sweep of things, we're talking about African American students who have been marginalized and targeted. Terrell Jermaine Starr ran down the recent racial history on campus for the Washington Post:
The president of the students’ association has been 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 campus yard. The crime, carried out by white students, was designed to invoke the image of plantation slavery.
The recent incidents draw their power from the systematic exclusions that black people in the U.S. have experienced. Just to take one example: Mid-century housing policy enriched white suburbs that denied black people entry. Real estate appraisers working with the Federal Housing Authority in the 1930s created a hierarchy of races with African Americans (and Mexicans) at the bottom. Black people were hemmed into ghettos that could not rise in value as long as they lived there. And yet, a newspaper could still run a story like this in 1998, asking why there weren't more black real estate entrepreneurs, without once mentioning redlining or the whole bundle of practices that excluded black people from the "normal" housing market.
If a journalist doesn't understand the basics of this history, they may not be able to see all that's going on. The lived experience of black people and their families cannot be disentangled from this history, which very few white people know or recognize as integral.
With a staff that consists of only about 35% Anglo whites, it's easy to forget that we at Fusion are an extreme anomaly. Nationally, white people make up 87 percent of newsrooms. Only five percent of the journalists in this annual survey are black, and that number has fallen over the past 15 years.
In that context, it doesn't really matter that Tim Tai is a good person (or great photographer) or that any individual journalist is a well-intentioned truth-seeker. The historical trauma African Americans have endured—and the role journalists played in the institutions of white supremacy—are real factors that no amount of high-minded First Amendment waving can make go away.
All that said, we do have some ways of dealing with situations like Mizzou within our own journalistic traditions. There is a simple analogue: if someone has been victimized, we try not to add to their pain. We might even show more deference or sensitivity than is technically necessary because that is the right way to respect the experience of a fellow human. One doesn't have to be heartless in order to have guts, and our guild recognizes this in a variety of types of cases around the second principle ("Minimize Harm") of the Society of Professional Journalists code of ethics.
And it's this tradition in journalism that I would ask us to draw on when we approach some of these protest situations. Most protesters — particularly in the current civil rights movement — are from groups that have experienced systematic oppression for generations, including the exclusion and warping of their stories by a too-white media.
This doesn't mean that we don't report our asses off, or give up when confronted with people who don't want us there. There are a lot of ways of telling a story. Look no further, for example, than your colleague Collier Meyerson's excellent, grounded work at Mizzou this week.
As journalists working for a more diverse, inclusive America, we can't let our sympathy for the cause dilute our commitment to covering protests, resistance movements, and the ideologies powering them truthfully, powerfully, and up close. These movements don't get a pass just because we, too, want justice for black Americans.
But I want you to bring a historically grounded appreciation for the subjects of your documentation. Black people, brown people, trans people, marginalized people of all kinds do have evidence to distrust what might feel like your pursuit of the truth. Know that going in. Take their lived experiences of trauma, personal and generational into account. And then go do the hard, uncomfortable reporting that's required to tell the story of this movement.