When the Media Came to Mizzou

Four years ago, a circus of parachuting journalists provided an accidental education for the world’s oldest journalism school.

Sensationalist coverage of protests at the University of Missouri fueled a long-term backlash that continues to effect everything from university budget debates to undergrad application rates.

By Marlee Baldridge

The University of Missouri School of Journalism is the world’s oldest such institution. There is some contention with a university in France, but we’re fairly confident we were the first.

The J-school’s slogan, “The Missouri Method,” is taken very seriously. It refers to the belief that journalism training should be “hands on,” its lessons learned by trial and error through practice and real-world experience. The school practices what it preaches. Students run the school newspaper, The Maneater, as well as a town daily, the Missourian. They edit and write the local art magazine, Vox, staff an NPR affiliate, and produce the programming for a local TV station.

None of that prepared students for the events of the Autumn of 2015.

It started early in the academic year, with a series of protests by a student group called Concerned Student 1950. The group had several demands: a more vigorous response by the administration to racism on campus, increased diversity among faculty, a plan for increased retention rates among marginalized students, and more. Jonathan T. Butler, a graduate student, went on a hunger strike. The football team also threatened to strike, jeopardizing millions of dollars of school revenue. In November, Tim Wolfe, the president of the University of Missouri system, resigned, followed quickly by the University’s Chancellor, Bowen Loftin.

Claire Mitzel was a first-semester freshman and budding student journalist in 2015. Her first story about Concerned Student 1950 appeared in the student paper, The Maneater, on November 9, the day of the resignations. She remembers the Maneater offices were a chaotic hive that day, with 30 or 40 reporters crammed into a newsroom that usually sits a dozen. On the way into the newsroom, she passed an even stranger scene on Carnahan Quadrangle, where the Concerned Student 1950 activists had set up a small camp. It was thick with older adults she had never seen before, all of them running around with cameras and microphones emblazoned with the logos of major networks.

“ABC, NBC, Fox, ESPN — all these big, professional, national journalists had arrived overnight,” she said. “I remember climbing to look for a vantage point and take it in for a second, and it hit me at that point [that] some sort of history was happening.”

While some national outlets had dispatched regional reporters to cover the unfolding drama, others had sent reporters from east coast. Some of them had been commenting on events at Mizzou since earlier in the fall, and not all of the coverage was good. PolitiFact, for example, had to correct a Fox News commentator who had falsely stated that a student had been killed when the president’s car struck protestors during the homecoming parade.

Professor Berkley Hudson, a journalism professor who sat on the campus-wide race relations committee during the protests, was eager to share Columbia with national reporters, but urged caution in reporting. At the time and since, he noted that the backstory to the protests and the atmosphere on campus was complex, and included factors some national outlets had missed. These included Chancellor Loftin’s and former Senator Kurt Schaefer’s conflict with the local Planned Parenthood clinic, as well as simmering tensions with graduate students after the University took away their healthcare subsidies. “If you forget or miss just one of those things, you misunderstand the story,” said Hudson.

But the central message of Concerned Student 1950 was being discussed, more or less correctly, if not fully in context, when Melissa Click happened. That’s when everything went to shit.

**

This is the part of the story you may have heard. On Nov. 9, a student journalist entered the Concerned Student 1950 camp on Carnahan Quad. Despite its public setting, the encampment had a strict rule of “no media,” and the student, who was freelancing for ESPN, was asked to leave. He responded by arguing his right to cover the protest. A chant arose from the crowd calling for the student journalist to leave: “Hey hey, ho ho, reporters have got to go.” As tensions grew, a ginger-haired Communications professor named Melissa Click (not a Journalism professor, as some reported) called for the help of “some muscle” to throw the student journalist out of the encampment.

Click’s choice of words flipped a switch on the story. Suddenly, thought pieces abounded, transforming the protests from a local story about institutional racism at the University of Missouri into a national story about free speech and the right of journalists to report anywhere they saw fit.

Cristina Mislán, a professor at the School of Journalism, was among the growing number of faculty frustrated by this new storyline. “There’s so much that [they] missed, picking up on the simple and sensationalistic narrative about conflict,” said Mislán. “What was the context in which students said, ‘No, we don’t want you to tell our story’?”

The answer, in a word, is Ferguson, a city about 120 miles from Mizzou’s campus.

Throughout the autumn of 2015 and after, cable newtworks — and one in particular — sensationalized a complex local story to stoke outrage for ratings.

AnDrea Jackson, a St. Louis native, was studying journalism at Mizzou when Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson shot and killed Michael Brown on August 9, 2014. Brown was 18 and unarmed, and Wilson was never charged.

“The media helicoptered into Ferguson like nobody’s business,” she said. “Some people [were] doing their jobs. But some people wanted to sensationalize.”

Jackson had friends in Concerned Student 1950 and was involved in the protests. On one hand, she was glad that reporters had arrived to amplify their voices, just as she welcomes more coverage of police brutality in black communities. But she also remembered the downsides of parachute journalism in Ferguson, and the endless loops of footage these journalists produced of looting and arson that she felt played directly into the stereotypes of black people as angry and violent. “Journalists show, but they also perpetuate,” she said.

After their arrival in November, the national press corps presented the country with a picture of campus that my classmates and I did not recognize. Our families asked over Facebook if we felt safe. My father threatened to disown me if he saw me involved “with that nonsense.” Cable news — and particularly FOX News — depicted Columbia as a violent city, barely under control. Ferguson redux. This might have made for good ratings, but it was false and incomplete in important ways. It also had serious consequences for the school.

For its “weak leadership,” the Missouri legislature cut the school budget by more than 8 percent over the next three years. Over the university’s four campuses, this meant the loss of more than 400 jobs. Retired professors were not replaced. Classes faded from the curriculum. Journalism professors now learned to use an ancient, jumbo-sized Dyson to clean and vacuum their offices, because the maintenance crew was too understaffed.

Then, in July of 2017, New York Times reporter Anemona Hartocollis looked back at the legacy of the protests, concluding that current students were unhappy and that prospective students were avoiding Mizzou for “depending on their viewpoint, a culture of racism or one where protesters run amok.” But the reporting behind the article was strangely spotty and selective. The Missouri Student Association president wrote a retort in the Missourian pointing out that while he and other students were interviewed, and offered views contrasting with those in the piece, their quotes were not included.

“It is reasonable to assume that the exclusion of these interviews, and who knows how many others, seems to have been driven by the fact that they did not fit into the more simplistic, yet flawed, picture that [the Times reporter] wished to paint,” he wrote.“The New York Times was correct however in pointing out that the events which took place on campus in the fall of 2015 appeared far more dramatic off campus than on. This can be statistically shown through the fact that the enrollment drop has come from new students, rather than students transferring away. [S]ince the events of 2015, Mizzou has experienced the third highest retention rate in its history.”

With the May graduation of the class of 2019, the campus memory of the events of autumn 2015 passed on to administrators and a shrinking number of tenured professors. Local journalism in Columbia, perhaps a community’s most important form of institutional memory, has also attenuated. In 2016, GateHouse Media bought the town paper, The Columbia Tribune, and today it is a sad shell of a once-thriving publication. If the protests were to happen today, The Tribune wouldn’t have the resources to cover it effectively. Locals now rely on the Missourian, with news reported by students who perform their own version of parachute journalism: report for two years and graduate.

The national coverage of events from the autumn of 2015, meanwhile, continues to reverberate. This April, the Missourian published a story about the school budget. In the article’s Facebook comments, off-campus readers pointedly derided the University for its mismanagement of the 2015 “riots.” As much as the school may wish for everyone to forget the media depictions of four years ago, the state and the country are unlikely to oblige it anytime soon.

Marlee Baldridge is the 2019 summer fellow at the American Press Institute. She has reported for a range of print, broadcast and online publications. Find her on Twitter @MarleeWith2Es

Production Details
V. 1.0.1
Last edited: May 29, 2019
Author: Marlee Baldridge
Editor: Alexander Zaitchik
Artwork: University of Missouri & Fox News Channel