Student Press, and the Importance of Diversity in the Newsroom

Katherine Hazen ’18
News Editor

This week has been a learning experience for me as an aspiring journalist. As students stood together against institutional failures in Columbia, Mo., New Haven, Conn. and in so many college towns in between, dissenters lamented the “death” of freedom of speech and journalists were barred from documenting some of the protests.

In an off-the-record interview I conducted last week unrelated to these events, my interviewee was telling me about the importance of diversity, saying that “the only way to dismantle racism is to institutionalize diversity.”

I was shocked and slightly disturbed as my interviewee asked me to look around the newsroom where I intern:  How many female editors did I see? How many editors of color did I see?  In an area known for its exceedingly progressive politics, how is it that the newsroom is not reflective of those beliefs?

Then the viral video of Tim Tai came. Tai, a student photojournalist at the University of Missouri, tried to capture photos of the gatherings at Carnahan Quadrangle and was prevented from doing so.  While students chanted, “Hey hey, ho ho, reporters have got to go,” Tai responded: “The First Amendment that protects your right to stand here [also] protects mine.”

I am really quite torn.

As a student journalist, I firmly believe that Tai should have been able to take those pictures; yet, as an ally, I think Tai should have respected the space of the protesters.

The institution of the media, due to its coverage of black on black violence, police brutality and the war on drugs, is understandably untrustworthy in the black community.  But shouldn’t Tai still have been able to document that victory?      

I wish there had been wider coverage of these incidents at Mizzou before the football team began their strike.  However, it’s hard to say whether white media is entitled to cover these feats, as doing so misrepresents the truth and capitalizes on the hard work of the students.

I refuse to accept that the press and the student movement against racism are as mutually exclusive as some critics have depicted them to be. At the very least, they shouldn’t have to be.

In his article entitled “Mizzou, Yale and Free Speech,” New York Times op-ed columnist Nicholas Kristof wrote, “We like to caricature great moral debates as right confronting wrong. But often, to some degree, it’s right colliding with right.”

The cries of “Free Speech” are used as a means to end the conversation, demonstrated in true Amherst fashion last week when signs were posted anonymously in Val Quad mourning the death of “the true victim of the Missouri protests.” I hope the irony is not lost on anyone that these tend to be the same people who conflate trigger warnings with censorship.

One question I have been asking myself is if free speech is indeed “free” if it comes at the cost of intentionally – or even unintentionally – making someone feel unsafe, unwanted or inferior.  Yet I also understand that once a society restricts a certain kind of speech, any speech is threatened by the same scrutiny.  Many people fear that possibility, and with the recent downsizing of Wesleyan’s newspaper budget, it is certainly not an unfounded fear.   

However, for white students that oppose or question the intent of Concerned Student 1950, there should be an opportunity for a learning experience. Black students don’t owe anyone that explanation — the media does.                

The events this past week have shown that there needs to be more of a discussion of who is not in the newsrooms across the nation.   

In an episode of National Public Radio’s Code Switch called “How Black Reporters Report on Black Death,” reporter Gene Demby reveals that oftentimes in the newsroom while upholding the journalistic pillar of objectivity, we begin to view whiteness as neutrality.  The only way to work past this notion is to diversify the newsroom.      

How are we supposed to cover the stories that need to be told – let alone do so with a nuanced understanding – without the input of people with various experiences, ethnicities, genders, sexualities and religions? We simply cannot.

I don’t have great answers to any of the questions I have posed. I don’t think anyone does.

But I want to be a part of a news media that makes sure everyone is at the pitch meeting.

To the students of color who are hurting: I support you, and I am watching. I want to hear from you what we are not covering.