How student journalists at Mizzou are telling a local story that's become national

Photo by David Rees/Missouri School of Journalism
In the Photo Lab, Missourian Photo Director Brian Kratzer keeps track of staff photographers, communicates with wire services and other interested publications, while picture editing students (from left) Timothy Nwachukwu, Hannah Sturtecky and Amber Garrett begin filing photos on the Missourian website. Photo by David Rees/Missouri School of Journalism

For ​Daniela Sirtori-Cortina​, the story didn’t start when football players protested, or when a student went on a hunger strike, or with any one of the documented racist incidents making news lately. For her, the story began way before it spread to the ​University of Missouri Columbia with Michael Brown’s death in Ferguson, Missouri, last year.

For a lot of students, she said, that was an awakening.

"I felt like it was an awakening for myself," said Sirtori-Cortina, a senior and an assistant city editor at the Columbia Missourian, the daily paper that students report for as part of their coursework at Mizzou.

Sirtori-Cortina is Colombian and didn't experience being a minority until coming to the U.S. for school.

But she is now.

Since the fall semester began, journalists at the Missourian have covered the building tension on their campus that led to Monday's resignation of the University of Missouri system's president and MU's chancellor. Staffers at the Missourian are students, new and advanced, working with student and professional editors at a daily newspaper that covers the community. (Note: I graduated from MU and wrote for the Missourian for a semester.) Now, they're dealing with the national spotlight, clashes with protesters and the challenges of covering not just the larger community but their own campus.

"Some of the most important things we have to learn are to respect the people that we're talking to," Sirtori-Cortina said. "I think we have to learn more about our First Amendment rights, about how to balance that respect with our right to report, and not to make the story about yourself."

Covering Columbia

"I think we realized early on that this was going to be the big issue of our semester," said Caroline Bauman, a first-year master's student and an assistant city editor for education at the Missourian.

The Missourian wanted journalists in the community reporting as the stories developed. And that has helped in recent days.

"We just felt like we needed to be on the ground reporting all the way through," Bauman said, "and that’s really saved us now that this has become so much more than we ever thought that it would be."

The Missourian's mandate to cover the campus is no different than the way community newspapers cover the towns they're in, said Tom Warhover, an associate professor and the executive editor for innovation at the Missourian.

"The difference here is, of course, that these journalists are students."

Those students have risen to the occasion, Warhover said, missing classes and working 12-hour shifts. On Wednesday, he had to order a few staffers not to show up in the newsroom. The challenges they've faced so far haven't been about craft.

Screen shot, Columbia Missourian
Screen shot, Columbia Missourian

"It's always difficult for any group to cover itself, right? But we've had a lot of practice at this," he said. "Every day we have to deal with the fact that we're a part of the community that we're sitting in, and so we're constantly preaching that we're first a community news organization for the people of mid-Missouri. We serve the people of mid-Missouri, and getting that across puts us in good stead for covering something that's intensely in our backyard."

The world is watching, he said, and his students know it. A week ago on a Sunday, the Missourian had 8,400 unique visitors to the site. This past Sunday, it had 217,000 unique visitors. The Missourian's most popular story, by far, hasn't been the breaking news, but the timeline of events that show none of this happened overnight.

When the circus comes to town

One frustration for journalists at the Missourian has been watching pieces of the story they're covering blow up nationally. On their own, those pieces often miss context, the bigger story and the nuances of the community.

"We were sitting in the newsroom here in Columbia," Sirtori-Cortina said. "We've been covering this for a long time, and we were like, this is odd. This is not what we're seeing."

On Monday, the Missourian looked at national coverage of the campus.

Of course, there were a few mistakes, like confusing Tim Wolfe's former position as the president of the four-campus University of Missouri System with the president of MU (a position that doesn't exist). And referring to him as "Tom Wolfe," one of the godfathers of the New Journalism.

CNN got a lot right in its Monday story, except one, small detail: It called this newspaper the Missouri Columbian. But now we're just being picky.

They're worried about accuracy and how mistakes other news organizations make may impact the Missourians' ability to reach sources.

"I'm sure we've made mistakes, of course, but I'm concerned that the accuracy problems that have been widely broadcast by stories in national organizations have hurt our news organization's relationship with the social justice activists here in Columbia, and the thing is, we're still here, we're not going to go away. We're going to continue covering this."

They've also worked not to make the story about themselves, she said.

"We've all been called by national publications, some of us have been interviewed by national outlets," Sirtori-Cortina said. But she and a few others have taken on the job of speaking for the reporters covering the story. Their job, she said, is to focus on their reporting.

"...Sometimes we are shoved into the spotlight, but I think we have to be careful not to make this about us."

Photo by David Rees/Missouri School of Journalism
As University of Missouri system President Tim Wolfe announces his resignation, Columbia Missourian Executive Editor Tom Warhover consults with City Editor Scott Swafford in the newsroom; ACE Daniela Sirtori passes by. Photo by David Rees/Missouri School of Journalism

For credit

The newsroom at the Missourian is predominately white, and through the last semester, many of the journalists reporting on what's happening at MU are learning to challenge their own views, Sirtori-Cortina said.

The national media have also done the work of challenging campus issues with freedom of the press, she said, covering protestor and press clashes extensively.

"They have a better position to do that, and it's important. It's important to discuss it, and that's something that we're still wrestling with, how to talk about it and how to defend our right to report without breaking every link with the community."

One story that’s made big news since Monday is student journalist Timothy Tai’s confrontation with protestors, including MU faculty. Warhover wrote on Tuesday that the Missourian didn't initially spend much time covering the clash because it "wasn’t the most important story of the day."

The Missourian has accepted many requests from the student movement to respect certain spaces, Sirtori-Cortina added, and "I don't think we have an idea right now of how it's going to be moving forward."

What is clear, she said, is that this story is far from over.

"We are going to keep working on this, we are going to keep reporting, we are going to keep fostering dialogue and we're going to keep challenging ourselves."

They haven't had much time yet to process what they're learning from the story, but Warhover wants his students to care, he said, to see the stories behind the stories. And the lessons this semester, he said, haven't just been about journalism.

"If nothing else, this whole fall has been, for all of us, not just for journalism students, a journey of experiencing other," he said, "and it's something that you can talk about in the classroom all you want, but until you experience it, you can't really know it."


Correction: The caption of a photo in an earlier version of this story misidentified Tim Wolfe, he was the president of the University of Missouri system.


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