On the last day of classes, I told my students it feels as if we have been through a war zone. They all agreed. I then told them I feel like a wounded general.
All of us are wounded. Students, faculty and staff at MU have endured a semester that will be remembered for shifting the way we talk about student empowerment. Years from now, students who participated in the protest will tell their children stories related to what happened.
Members of the faculty are still pondering what it all means. So much of our energy is dedicated to remaining on track while pressing to teach lessons beyond things placed on the syllabus before the semester began. Our plans were vastly interrupted by reporters, followed by MU as the subject of headline news across the country.
The intrusion is a teachable moment. For journalism students, the Missouri Method is on full display. We teach our students by creating a working environment similar to the real world of news gathering. For me, and for my students, this semester was more about what was happening on campus than grammar, Associated Press style, how to write effective leads and how to structure a news story by using the inverted pyramid.
I pressed my students to find the stories within the stories. We talked about angles that many reporters lost because of the mayhem. We talked about how to use bias to craft stories that others can't see because of the fear of partiality. We judged the press while honoring reporting that moved beyond the common narrative.
I told them to ask questions when bias pops up in a way that tempts them to minimize their focus. This is most critical when it comes to controversial topics. We talked about moving beyond labels in determining focus. I told them it's the trick that separates good journalist from those stuck in clipping and pasting stories to get things done before their deadline.
We talked about white rage and black pain. I told them they miss the story when they limit the conversation to simple explanations. Yes, racism is at the core of much that confronts society, but the issue for journalists is not the "what" of the story. Good journalists ponder the "why" underneath what shows up in public space.
We talked about the responsibility of the press. It's not enough to write about people being mad. The challenge of journalists is to help people understand why people are mad. They have to push beyond those common assumptions that minimize conversations to people on opposite sides yelling too loudly for people on the other side to listen.
I told them they are responsible for changing the world. They do that with their words. More than that, they do that by asking questions and digging until people fully understand the issues that keep people pitted against one another.
Rather than focusing on racial slurs on campus, try to confront the mindset of those who use hate language to denigrate a group of people. How did we get here? I told them to confront emotions on both sides of stories. We talked about patiently listening to voices on the other side of your opinions. Good journalists are fierce in attempting to convey how others feel. You may disagree, but change happens when journalists do all they can to understand.
There is something deeper, much deeper, underneath the narrative of the moment. Something can be lost in the way the story is shared. I told my students they own the responsibility of helping people filter through the language hindering people from hearing how others feel and think.
I told them we, as journalists, can't participate in the narrative of confusion. We are obligated to listen to people we disagree with and distrust due to the conflict between their message and our own. We can't pretend to be impartial. That isn't possible. All of us bring our bias to the way we communicate messages. Knowing that means we have to work harder to understand why a person feels the way he or she does.
It's like a war zone.
How do you teach the ethics of journalism to students who want to protest? How do you tell them to deny their natural instinct to participate in something that matters to them?
How do you tell white students not to care about black students? What do you say to white students when they tell you they're ashamed to be white and they can't help but show black students they care?
It's like a war zone.
This is a great teachable moment. I told my students to refrain from participating in conflict journalism. This is what my profession has become — journalism determined to promote a specific agenda removed from the obligation to listen to the voices on the many sides of the issue.
Change can't happen if you stay in that place. People can't learn from one another if journalists refuse to help them understand why people feel the way they do.
Our nation has become a war zone.
The lesson for this semester is about changing the culture that breeds opposition. Journalists, like those outside the profession, are learning to transition within a culture enamored with separation and confusion. We have learned to love fighting more than compromise.
I say put the weapons down and listen to what others have to say.
I may not like it, but it's the only way to end a war.