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 persist in their 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 shot, obstructing journalists and has endured withering critique for her actions.
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.
Professor Click is a gifted teacher and sharp scholar who I met in graduate school nearly 20 years ago. She cares deeply about students. Much of America got to know her this week as an indignant rabble-rouser and catalyst for conservative rage in the decontextualized video shot on the Mizzou quad. First appearing on gossip and conservative media websites on Monday night and spreading into a full-blown story in general market media by Tuesday, the video shot by a student journalist named Mark Schierbecker showed photojournalist, Mizzou senior, and ESPN stringer Tim Tai tangling with activists and allies on the quad.
#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 1st 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, and 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 he was “a little perturbed about being 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, 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, “I regret the language and strategies I used.” 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. 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. Think about an episode when President Obama speaks in the Rose Garden: journalists are invited, move through security, told where to sit, defer to the President when he speaks, and are eventually led out of the building. If he says, “no comment,” the journalists move onto the next question. This all occurs not only on public property, but also in a national park. The press secretaries, handlers, and armed guards are public employees.
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 – 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.