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When journalists become the news: Mizzou journalism dean, Poynter expert weigh in on campus coverage

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In this Nov. 9, 2015 frame from video, Janna Basler, right, who works in the University of Missouri's office of Greek life, tells photographer Tim Tai, to "leave these students alone" in their "personal space," in Columbia, Mo. Protesters credited with helping oust the University of Missouri System's president and the head of its flagship campus welcomed reporters to cover their demonstrations Tuesday, a day after a videotaped clash between some protesters and a student photographer drew media condemnation as an affront to the free press. (Mark Schierbecker via AP) MANDATORY CREDIT
Mark Schierbecker /AP
In this Nov. 9, 2015 frame from video, Janna Basler, right, who works in the University of Missouri's office of Greek life, tells photographer Tim Tai, to "leave these students alone" in their "personal space," in Columbia, Mo. Protesters credited with helping oust the University of Missouri System's president and the head of its flagship campus welcomed reporters to cover their demonstrations Tuesday, a day after a videotaped clash between some protesters and a student photographer drew media condemnation as an affront to the free press. (Mark Schierbecker via AP) MANDATORY CREDIT

A viral video is bringing up all sorts of questions about how a campus can best cover the story when it's at the center of that story.

Events at the University of Missouri this week have not only raised questions about the potential power of college athletes, but big questions about campus journalism as well.

A campus activist group known as Concerned Student 1950 set up a small tent city on campus. ESPN assigned a photographer to take pictures of the encampment. That photographer, Tim Tai, is also a senior at Mizzou. When he tried to get the shots he needed, students asked him to back away. Things quickly became heated. 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xRlRAyulN4o

The situation brings up all sorts of thorny questions about how a campus can best cover the story when it's at the center of that story.

Kelly McBride of the Poynter Institute said Tai was well-armed with knowledge of the First Amendment.

"He did a really good job of explaining in completely human terms what we were talking about here, that the Bill of Rights protects his right, the right of the press, to do its job, and protects the right of assembly for protesters," she said. "What this really gets down to is that this was public space. University of Missouri is a public school, and this is a public quad, and so everybody had a right to be there, and he did a good job of explaining that."  

David Kurpius, dean of the University of Missouri School of Journalism, agreed that the First Amendment was key to this situation for both Tai and the protesters.

"We absolutely, whole-heartedly stand behind the right of journalists to be up there and covering major events in a public space," he said. "But we also recognize that the protesters had the freedom of assembly, freedom of speech, and the right to redress grievances against a government entity, which the university would be as a public university, and so they had a right to be there and be protesting."

Though Tai was not covering the story for The Maneater, Mizzou's campus paper, Kurpius said Tai showed great conduct.

"Tim's done great work, he handled himself professionally out there," he said. "We're very, very proud of Tim."

Still, McBride said maintaining balance in reporting is an ever-present element in student reporting.

"All student journalists are covering, for the most part, the campus that has power over them, the authority structure that has power over them. A lot of them get their budgets directly from the president's office. Not all of them, and I believe The Maneater is an exception," she said. "However, that doesn't mean that they don't do really good, serious journalism. Many student journalists and their advisers are super passionate about the public's need to know, their obligation to hold the powerful accountable, and so there's very good student journalism that happens at campuses across the country."

Kurpius also clarified the position of Dr. Melissa Click, who is seen in the video standing up for the protesters, and has been incorrectly reported by some news outlets as being part of the journalism faculty. Kurpius said Click only had an honorary appointment with the department. He added that he does not know Click's current status with the School of Communication. 

"I think the confusion is coming because people think that she's teaching journalism classes, and she's not, and hasn't, and won't," he said. "She had this little dotted line over that allowed her to work with some graduate students. So that's the limit of it."

At the end of the day, what grade would Kurpius give for the way the situation was handled? 

"Very simple. It's an A plus," he said.

To listen to the full interview, click on the blue audio player above.

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