What Education Reporters Think About Student “Safe Spaces”

Now that the dust has settled somewhat, I thought it might be interesting and useful to reflect for a few minutes on last week’s dustup over the student photographer trying to cover the Missouri student protestors (see video above).

So I asked education reporters — some of whom have been in similar situations — what they thought about what happened. What did they do? What would they have done? Would the situation have been read/responded to differently if the photographer had been white or female? Did it make a difference that the people who didn’t want to be covered were students rather than administrators/public officials?

The handful of responses I got were surprisingly straightforward in their support for the photographer journalist to do his job as he felt he needed to do — though at least one of them suggested that there were opportunities for journalists to reflect on why their presence was upsetting to the students:

“I just want to say that I’m super proud of that student photographer, Tim Tai, who was actually an intern at the Express-News two summers ago and did great work here,” said  Alia Malik at the San Antonio Express News (via email). “I’m glad he didn’t back off because by standing his ground, he taught a lesson about the media’s role and the First Amendment that many are not hearing otherwise (which is unfortunate.)… Tim as a student handled the situation so well blows my mind.”

Asked whether it mattered that the subjects were students (rather than administrators or elected officials), Malik thought not. “I don’t think it matters that these were students. They are adults.”

“My view on the Mizzou protest — I am a proud Mizzou J-school grad — is that those students were protesting in a very public place, in a very public way,” said Jeff Solochek of the Tampa Bay Times (FL). “If they did not want to be documented, they could have gone elsewhere. Why would it be that their occupation of the school quadrangle where every student passes through daily is private and not subject to scrutiny? They have rights, to be sure, but in exercising them they must accept the consequences. Public speech gets covered publicly in our country.” 

“Of course, the photographer had every right to be there,” agreed the Hechinger Report’s Nichole Dobo. “No one should have touched him or pushed him.” But Dobo also thought it was an opportunity for reporters to reflect: “Journalists should be asking themselves “why” did the protesters behave that way. Why do students think they need a safe space on campus? Why did they launch a public protest and then attempt to block the media from fully covering it? We can fully back First Amendment rights and listen to the answers to those questions.”

She suggested a column by Terrell J. Starr at the Washington Post and a column by Nick Chiles of The Hechinger Report

“I experienced a mild version of this covering a BLM protest in the last year,” wrote an education reporter who didn’t want to be identified. “At one point, some of the protesters suggested that media that were “with us” were welcome to follow along, and those who were not should not. But I was troubled by that. We are observers, and our job is to relay what is going on in our communities to readers who are not there on the scene, regardless of our own views or political leanings.”

These are all interesting and helpful perspectives — and obviously relevant to education reporting. Whether it’s a protest, a sit-in, a hallway conflict, or a board meeting, education reporters are regularly working in situations where things are heated and they may be asked to leave. Usually it’s those in positions of authority who ask or demand that journalists stop reporting, rather than students, but the issues and dynamics are much the same.  

Alexander Russo

Alexander Russo is a freelance education writer who has created several long-running blogs such as the national news site This Week In Education, District 299 (about Chicago schools), and LA School Report. He can be reached on Twitter at @alexanderrusso, on Facebook, or directly at alexanderrusso@gmail.com.