Balancing photojournalistic rights and responsibility at Mizzou

In light of recent altercations between journalists and community members at Mizzou working to protect protesters, Student Life finds it necessary to address the differences between the rights of photojournalists and our ethical responsibilities. In this space, we intend to draw attention to the nuanced and oft-fraught relationship between activism and photojournalism, and more specifically, how journalists interact with minorities.

First of all, photojournalists in the state of Missouri work under the legal right of one-party consent. No photographer needs permission, so long as the subject is in a public space without a reasonable expectation of privacy; that’s just the reality of being in a public, outdoor space. That doesn’t mean subjects are required to enjoy having their photographs taken, but it does mean that there’s no legal right to physically attack or incite violence against a photographer on the job.

So when a professor cross-listed in Mizzou’s journalism school asks for “some muscle” to remove a photographer in order to create a safe space for protesters, that professor is in the wrong and, frankly, should have known better. As Wesley Lowery, a reporter for the Washington Post, tweeted earlier this month: “crucial role of media to ? and demand accountability/transparency of institutions – that includes protest movements.” Lowery’s words indicate an impetus on the media to question the agents of power. It seems odd, but at that moment, #ConcernedStudent1950 was a group with a great deal of power, and therefore, should be subject to scrutiny.

That being said, our rights do not absolve us from treating our subjects with respect. The reality is this: Subjects, especially minority subjects, are often wary of reporters because the media has not always accurately reflected their experiences. When Mizzou protesters shield their faces from photographers, some do so because they are afraid of retaliation from police, friends and family or extremist groups (such as white supremacists); others do so fearing that they might be portrayed out of context, in an unfavorable light that might cost them a future job. Of course, the Mizzou protesters could move into a private, genuinely safe space, but the media shouldn’t be the force driving them there. Journalists have the responsibility to engage their subjects in a way that makes them open to telling their stories, that shows they are valued as humans rather than just the driving force in a juicy news story.

This responsibility can be fulfilled by a photojournalist in a number of ways: The best, of course, is to engage in discourse with subjects, to learn their names, their reasons for protesting, etc., rather than just snapping a few shots from the sidelines. Permission can also be acquired through a simple eye-contact agreement; taking a moment to lower the camera, nod at a subject and wait for them to nod back or turn away establishes nonverbal understanding and respect. In one moment, a journalist is able to form a relationship with a subject that is, in effect, a promise to report truthfully. If the subject is disinterested, the journalist can move on and try with someone else. At a rally similar to what’s happening at Mizzou, there are plenty of people with stories to tell.

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