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DEAR READER: There is little difference between 'student' and 'professional' reporters

Friday, January 14, 2011 | 1:11 p.m. CST; updated 6:04 p.m. CST, Saturday, January 15, 2011

Dear Reader,

I didn't know if I could do the big story. I didn't know whether the sources would, day after day, take me seriously; in the end, I found the answers to both.

It was my second day of reporting when my editor, Liz Brixey, who had a lot more faith in my reporting skills than I did, told me to investigate what was happening between Mediacom and KOMU.

Mediacom and KOMU had been in negotiations for a new retransmission contract since July. KOMU had never been monetarily compensated for its programming by Mediacom and was seeking payment. According to Mediacom, KOMU's compensation demands would have made it the highest paid network affiliate in the Columbia area.

As I made my first calls to Mediacom and KOMU, I was confronted by an uncomfortable notion: Are they taking me seriously? I called Mediacom and was asked, "Isn't this your winter break? They are making you work over winter break? That's awful!"

"Yep," I replied. "But I'm just trying to do my job."

If I had been calling from any other newspaper, would they have asked me about my winter break?

MU's Journalism School gives a unique opportunity to students by giving them real-life experiences in television, radio, magazines and newspapers. As KOMU gives students the chance to report in Columbia, the Missourian has given me a similar opportunity.

Being transparent in my ties to the School of Journalism and MU was important to me. While there are several differences between KOMU and the Missourian in terms of MU affiliation and ownership, I wanted readers to know that just because I am an MU student does not mean I am biased toward KOMU.

I am also a Mediacom customer, though I don't have much time to watch my favorite cable shows with the amount of time I spend in the Missourian newsroom.

Many student journalists are often faced with the frustration of not being taken as seriously as a "professional" journalist. It might not be that apparent, but it's there. It might be a condescending tone, unreturned phone calls or a cocked eyebrow that expresses a lack of faith in our skills.

What the term "student" blurs is how many of my peers have worked at 100,000-circulation papers across the country, whether it's through internships or freelance work. How is that not professional?

What might have seemed like a small comment to others, I took to heart. I was out to prove to both parties that my words should be taken seriously.

In the days getting closer to the Dec. 31 deadline, both parties became more colorful in their language and quotes, which clearly reflected their frustration with the negotiation process.

I was later told by some parties that they regretted being so casual in their language choice in our interviews.

Commercials began to play, along with interviews on the radio, making the negotiation process very apparent to the public. I started seeing that there were a lot more aspects to the negotiation process.

One key lesson to be learned from this negotiation is the importance of interpretation of language. KOMU made it clear that it was not supported by tax dollars from MU, while Mediacom tried to promote the fact that KOMU is owned by a public institution that receives taxpayer dollars. When it came down to trying to find the truth between these two statements, it led me to a big gray area.

At first, Mediacom brought up words like "taxpayer funded," "tax dollars" and "owned by a public institution" to describe KOMU. Mediacom would later say that KOMU's funding wasn't the main point of its negotiations and that the focus on KOMU being owned by a public institution was leading Mediacom down an unintended path.

Unintended or not, I explained that, in Columbia, the public institution of MU was a central part of the city. I also explained that regardless of whether the issue seemed important, there were several aspects of the story that deserved to be reported.

As we passed the negotiation extension and programming was dropped from Mediacom customers, I pushed myself to write a new article every day, examining what this negotiation meant for Columbia.

Toward the end of last week, I had done something with my words I didn't know I had the power to do: I made someone stop and notice.

I received a less-than-thrilled e-mail from Mediacom, in which the company claimed that I incorrectly reported that the cable provider denied trying to treat KOMU differently because of its MU affiliation. Had the student that the company felt sorry for because she didn't get to go home to Minneapolis for winter break actually made a difference?

As I reported, last Friday the attorney general stepped in and soon after, the parties came to an agreement. I felt as though I had just crossed the finish line in a mental marathon.

As I woke up Monday morning, I received a surprising e-mail from Missourian executive editor Tom Warhover that he had received from Tom Larsen, vice president of legal and public affairs for Mediacom.

"Mr. Warhover — I just wanted to drop you a quick note to say that I was very impressed with the job that Eve Edelheit did covering the Mediacom-KOMU dispute.  She took the time to do extra research and report on issues that did not get much coverage in other local papers."

I was in shock — but grateful that the company recognized how hard I dug to get all the issues before the public.

I hope that in following this story in its entirety, I showed that it doesn't matter how easy it is to see Jesse Hall out of your office window. I never thought twice in regard to how hard I would work on this story.

As a reporter, it is my job to serve the Columbia community by covering issues that will affect their lives.

Eve Edelheit is a senior at the Missouri School of Journalism, where she primarily studies photojournalism. She will be a photo editor this semester at the Columbia Missourian.


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