Student newspaper editors at Missouri State University recently sparked controversy and a much needed conversation on race.
Written by editor-in-chief Trevor Mitchell, an online story posted Oct. 28 reports that 35 protesters showed up at a Missouri State University football game in Springfield, Missouri earlier this month. Instead of being viewed as an exercise of their constitutional rights, the protesters were pelted with offensive statements and veiled threats. Like any decent student newspaper, The Standard – MSU’s student newspaper – covered the protests and the negative reaction.
Springfield is three hours away from Ferguson, Missouri where Michael Brown, and unarmed black teen, was gunned down by white police officer Darren Wilson. Ferguson has been the site of numerous protests since Brown’s August 9th shooting death.
Just so the point about race relations on campus — and in this country — was made clear, The Standard‘s editors blew up the offensive remarks on the front page of its newspaper. Did editors want to grab attention? Of course. Were they trying to make a point? More than likely. Was it in poor taste? Absolutely not.
Some alumni are angry about the cover, but this needed to happen.
— Michael Gulledge (@mgulledge) October 28, 2014
Mitchell reported that protesters were called “niggers” and some where physically threatened by tailgaters, some were students, others weren’t. Initially The Standard did not adequately cover the protest, something Mitchell apologized for on the newspaper’s opinion page. The editor also published first-person accounts from protesters, an open letter to MSU officials, and other opinion pieces and editorials about campus diversity and racism.
While he did not personally witness any of the protest incidents, Mitchell said quotes were independently corroborated by multiple sources who The Standard spoke with separately.
“I didn’t personally witness any of these things. But I’ve been a student at MSU for four years, and I know what the climate is here,” Mitchell said via email. “I read the anonymous Facebook posts people make. And when seven people tell me about racial slurs and threats they endured, backed up by dozens of other students of color on Twitter, I believe them.
“One girl said ‘If you asked every black person in this room to raise their hand if they were called a nigger from a moving car, or on their way to class, they’d all go up.’ And they did,” Mitchell added.
In his cover story, Mitchell also wrote that messages protesters wrote on the sidewalk in chalk were power washed away by university employees, while other chalk messages were left untouched. University officials released a statement saying the removal was an “incorrect decision” and that the personnel responsible had been “re-educated” on university policy.
Based on tweets and the amount of coverage the newspaper has produced post-protest, it is clear the cover sparked a campus conversation about race. More of that kind of dialogue needs to happen, not just in Missouri, but across the country. That’s what good journalism does.
At the same time the U.S. Supreme Court is systematically rolling back voting rights, this needed to happen. At the same time white police officers disproportionately target, beat to death and shoot unarmed black and brown men in Ferguson and elsewhere, this needed to happen. At the same time Hollywood is challenging notions of a post-racial America, this needed to happen.
But for folks like MSU alumni Michael Gulledge, The Standard’s cover elevated the issue of race when it, perhaps, shouldn’t have. “The problem isn’t the language, it’s that it’s third party an hearsay. That’s incredibly irresponsible,” Gulledge tweeted.
On The Standard: The problem isn’t the language, it’s that it’s third party and hearsay. That’s incredibly irresponsible. (Fixed sp mistake)
— Michael Gulledge (@mgulledge) October 28, 2014
Quoting protesters in a story – and on the cover for that matter – isn’t irresponsible, it’s journalism. Quotes aren’t just part of our trade, quotes are our bread and butter. Editor Mitchell declined to respond to Gulledge’s accusations, but said, “I’d like to hear his response to the protesters I spoke with, and from that room full of black students, hands raised high in the air.”
I asked Gulledge to clarify his tweets. “It’s quoting people who are quoting people. Ever played the game telephone? Playing it in journalism is dangerous,” he responded, adding that he did not know the protesters, whether they are being truthful or whether the reporter witnessed any of the offenses first hand.
Gulledge, who bills himself as a “recovering journalist,” acknowledged that a conversation is taking place, and that “it’s nice to hear all sides.”
That’s the point. Gulledge, by virtue of his privilege, doesn’t have to engage in conversations about race. He can pretend that such attitudes no longer persist. He can believe that being called a “nigger” is nothing more than hearsay and getting bullied and told to “go back to (insert location)” is someone else’s problem. But that provocative cover forced him to think about it, and to talk about issues many of the rest of us have to deal with almost daily.
So to The Standard I say kudos! Let’s hope the conversation at MSU’s campus continues, and that more dialogues like this take place across this country. But more important, let’s ensure the conversation is a two-way process, not just one group complains while another group condemns. The Standard is trying to do just that.