As student protests heat up, journalists face access issues

In the past few weeks, student activists at many colleges across the country have held protests and demonstrations to condemn racism on campus and to call for changes. But as student and professional journalists attempt to cover the protests, they have repeatedly been denied access.

At Smith College, student activists holding a sit-in in solidarity with University of Missouri racial-justice protests on Thursday banned reporters from covering the event unless they “participate and articulate their solidarity with black students and students of color,” student activists told MassLive. Smith College Sophian editor-in-chief Michelle Lee said the paper is “in the stages of responding” to the incident and declined to comment further.

Smith media relations staff supported the ban on press access, saying the students could ban reporters if they wanted and that as a private college, Smith reserves the right to exclude reporters from the protest area.

The rule echoes similar media bans in other university protests, including Missouri, and illustrates a widespread distrust of mainstream, majority-white media outlets among activists of color. “By taking a neutral stance, journalists and media are being complacent in our fight,” one student activist told MassLive.

Media bans at the Missouri protests sparked outrage among journalists and non-journalists alike, particularly after a now-viral video showed faculty member Melissa Click calling for “muscle” to be used against a student photojournalist.

Activists lifted the media ban the next day, but tensions still flared between student activists and reporters nationwide. Last week, protesters at Loyola University Chicago banned outside media from entering a protest area they deemed a “safe space.”

“I think it’s very important for the media to realize that these are also healing spaces, so when the demonstrations are going on, obviously students want to get some kind of press … but don’t invade people’s healing space by documenting what’s going on,” said Ryan Sorrell, chief editor of The Black Tribune, a publication run by Loyola students of color.

Professional reporters were also barred from entering protest areas during a sit-in at the Towson University president’s office, although student reporters from the Towerlight student newspaper were allowed access because they had developed mutual trust and rapport with the protesters, Towerlight editors said. A video posted to YouTube on Wednesday shows activists chanting at WBAL-TV reporters, “For our safety, we do not wish to be recorded.”

The access issues have sparked outrage from professional journalists, who say that the media ban, even if technically legal when on private campuses, is disgraceful to the principle of free press. “To welcome some reporters and not others — and to make support for the cause the price of admission — is to disregard not only the fundamental principles of journalism but also the school itself,” wrote Callum Borchers of The Washington Post, referring to the Smith protest.

Journalism organizations have responded to the press access issues by urging reporters to keep chasing the story, even when facing obstacles and uncooperative sources.

“Even though they are likely aggravated, journalists should also make sure their reporting is fair and balanced. Thorough, ethical and responsible reporting is always the best defense and character reference for journalists,” wrote Andrew Seaman, the chair of the Society of Professional Journalists’ ethics committee, in a blog post.