I used to want to be an activist

I remember the first time I saw a video of the March on Washington and Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Had a Dream” speech. I was probably seven years old at the time, but I remember something inside me was intrinsically drawn to mass mobilization; how the great divide between races, classes and socioeconomic status could galvanize change.

As a grew older, I became fascinated with the protest movement of the late 1960s against the Vietnam War and the counter-culture that spoke volumes about the state of America at the time. I’ve always identified pretty strongly with the hippie movement in the way that I’ve always thought human love and respect could conquer all.

Well here I am in the midst of a revolution. I find myself at an odd crossroads where even if I wanted to, I couldn’t participate in the protests. I am a journalist, not an activist.

But yesterday I was supervising the newsroom when a Concerned Student 1950 protest thundered through a student dining hall full of prospective MU students and their families. I received a video from one of my colleagues and sent a reporter to cover the demonstration. The blood rushed through my veins, my adrenaline skyrocketed. I picked up the phone and dialed any source I could think of — we had to get this story.

Fast forward five hours of tireless reporting and confirmation. I sat down with the two reporters on duty to write, and there was a strange moment when I realized I wasn’t really thinking anymore — I was just doing my job. I went into a detached auto-reporter, breaking news mode, but in retrospect the weight of the words I wrote spoke to an audience in volumes.

It was not my voice in the story nor the voices of people I necessarily supported. It was the voice of a concerned student group and a massive group of students on campus who felt as if they hadn’t been heard. By truthfully writing down what people say or do, we as journalists move the masses more readily than any protest ever could. We open up a conversation that is sometimes so obvious and so necessary that everyone joins in. We try our best not to spin it in one way or another, we allow people to provide their commentary and we provide context.

Yesterday and today, the Missourian’s website had more traffic than it ever has before. National news organizations have been calling the newsroom every hour to ask to borrow our content. My friends have been doing stringer work for the Washington Post and the New York Times. 

I used to think nobody paid attention or cared about the news. I used to think it was useless to be a newspaper journalist because nobody got their news from us any more, but here we are, at the forefront of a national conversation. Here we are, breaking the news that the MU football team won’t play a game until the UM System President is fired. And everyone in the newsroom is there for it because we know people care.

This is my favorite type of mobilization — the kind that gives people a voice.

7 thoughts on “I used to want to be an activist

  1. And yet, not a word about why innocent people were intruded upon, or what happened during the interruption. Nice self serving I feel important now piece. Too bad you didn’t have time to report the news.

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    • I’m not really sure what you mean. This post was about what it’s like to be behind the scenes of a major news event. Albeit controversial, the protests were perfectly legal and peaceful. I dont know what “innocent people” you’re talking about, but I’m assuming it’s the families who were present when the protest happened. Not saying I endorse the protesters’ message, but the protesters were well within their rights to speak on campus, as are journalists, I might add.

      I wrote this blog post so people would understand what it feels like to be a journalist. I didn’t write it to brag on myself or my profession. Whether or not you like it, journalists and reporters especially do a very important service. How do you think people have found anything out throughout history?

      I’m going to approve your comment on this post, but not because I think it’s warranted. In fact, I think it’s near-sighted. The purpose of this post wasn’t to “report the news,” the purpose of this post was to show what happens behind the news. You can read the Columbia Missourian if you’d like to read the story.

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  2. Hello Ms Kull,

    I’m unaffiliated with the university but just wanted to call to your attention – if you haven’t seen the video already – the protesters physically intimidating and pushing several student reporters. This included two university staff members, including an assistant professor, calling for the use of “muscle” to remove a reporter who had every right as a journalist to be present at the protest and to document the ongoings. I think everyone nationally appreciates the coverage but to see the adversity and – to be honest – bullying experienced by other reporters on campus really drives home the importance of journalism in the face of a disturbing lack of respect toward freedom of assembly and press demonstrated by the protesters.

    That incident itself is newsworthy. Public grounds are for everyone, including the press. Defining it as a safe space and forcibly removing those you dislike, regardless of their right to be there, is shameful. I think the protesters (who you generously call peaceful – I think Tim Tai might beg to differ) ought to take a step back from their self-righteousness and recognize how important the press can be to disseminating their message. But at the same time, the lens that can be so powerful in garnering them sympathy can just as easily expose their ugly intolerance – and that was on full display for the nation to see. No safe space is big enough, or opaque enough, to hide that.

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    • I absolutely agree, and thank you for your comment. Tim Tai is one of my friends and it was disheartening to see the protesters treating him that way. I am also upset because we had been nothing but respectful to that group throughout the whole hunger strike/protest movement. I understand it was a bit of a media circus, but it was ridiculous that a group constantly preaching love and respect would treat another human that way. I was disheartened to say the least, especially since they had done such a wonderful job of keeping the movement had been peaceful up until then.

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  3. By truthfully writing down what people say or do, we as journalists move the masses more readily than any protest ever could. <<< I was with your essay until this sentence. It's extremely self serving and diminishes tremendously the work that the protesters are doing. Journalism is indeed necessary, but if there were no protests at all, you'd have nothing to report. And it's sad that you think what you do is more important than what they are ACTIVELY doing.

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    • I guess what I meant by that is the protesters and the media go hand-in-hand. The protesters continue working for their cause, and we continue to spread their message. The movement would have never gotten the nationwide attention it did if no one had said anything about the football team or the hunger strike. What these protesters were doing was extremely noble and extremely powerful, and I am by NO MEANS trying to diminish that, but I’d argue that if nobody was watching and telling, nobody would have cared. I never said “the protesters aren’t important,” or that “we are always more important,” I just said we move the masses more quickly because word of mouth and educating people is a meaningful tool. Our reach allows us to help spread the work they did. Journalists help by putting into place the final piece of a protest puzzle — the mass-education piece.

      Some organizations don’t do a great job of it, I’ll admit. But the media has a VERY powerful tool if they choose to use it. They can report thoroughly and completely for the sake of the protesters to help them get their message out more quickly and with context and weight.

      I was also referring to the times when protesters aren’t involved. For example, when journalists have exposed wrongdoing in the government. Nobody protested, nobody was there, but journalists have sparked national conversations and created change all on their own.

      Activists will always be necessary and they are extremely powerful, and I didn’t mean to diminish their role — after all, this is THEIR story and THEIR struggle, not ours.

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