November 10, 2015

The past 24 hours have been surreal — “bizarre and weird” — for University of Missouri senior journalism major Timothy R. Tai.

The viral video and media coverage of his face-off with students protesting reports of racism on the Columbia, Missouri, campus has brought the talented and humble young visual reporter tremendous unwanted attention.

In both of Tai’s Tuesday morning classes, News Reporting and Negotiating Chinese Culture, he had to field questions about his day in the eye of the media. And people around the world have offered more support and encouragement than he ever expected.

“I’m just trying to process what’s going,” Tai recalled in a phone interview with Poynter, as he was leaving Dean David Kurpius’ office. Kurpius wanted Tai to know that he supported his conduct and his actions on yesterday and encouraged him to share his perspective with the national media, according to Tai.

The now widely-published events of Monday morning on the campus of the University of Missouri began for the St. Louis native after receiving a call from ESPN at around 9:45 a.m. offering him an independent reporting assignment to cover the campus protest.

Within 20 minutes, news began to spread of President Tim Wolfe’s resignation, and Tai recalled hurrying out to the campus protest area.

Tai maintained that “we were not trying or wanting to intrude” and said he expected the “professors to be a little more mature and thoughtful: It was unnecessary for her to call in the ‘muscle,’” referring to Professor Melissa Click’s comments during the incident.

“It was a moment of strong passion, and I never felt in danger of having my cameras smashed or being harmed. In Ferguson, I was far more threatened,” explained Tai, referring to covering the Michael Brown protest. Tai’s photograph of Michael Brown’s mourning mother helped him earn a finalist postion and “best of show” image in the Hearst National Journalism Awards competition.

Tai’s immediate response and greatest concern is, “I don’t want the concerned students to get a bad rap. Their supporters were more unreasonable than the #concernedstudents1950 students themselves and I am glad that they have restated their position today.”  Tai is especially concerned that people threatened those who opposed him with death threats and wants that to stop immediately.

As far as what he told the protestors and why, he said,  “I am fascinated by the idea of rights and duty to document while the protestors are trying to create a black/Safe space in public space.  I wanted them to know that the First Amendment protects both of our positions as press and protesters.”

“I expected to be blocked. I just tried to do my job and move on,” he added. “I was immediately horrified. I stood my ground…Now I am in a weird place…I never intended for this to be about me.  I don’t want to be a distraction from the protest story.”

Tai admits that he is “overwhelmed” by the volume of emails and attention… and I am not really sure how to handle the email.”

He said he would like to think that most photojournalists would do the same thing that he did: “Be polite, be patient and reasonable.”

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Kenny founded Poynter's photojournalism program in 1995. He teaches in seminars and consults in areas of photojournalism, leadership, ethics and diversity.
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