Media Skews Student Voices

Last week’s campus protests show unbalanced priorities of mainstream news outlets

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Illustration by Lizzy Choi
Illustration by Lizzy Choi

Mainstream media outlets sensationalize protests, dedicate space to isolated incidents and belittle genuine issues people are trying to change through direct action. Coverage of last week’s student actions at UC Santa Cruz was no different and further demonstrated how distorting media coverage can be.

Students shut down campus on May 1 in the name of workers’ rights on International Workers’ Day. On May 2, the Afrikan/Black Student Alliance (A/BSA) and other students reclaimed Kerr Hall for almost three days to persuade Chancellor George Blumenthal to meet A/BSA’s demands regarding housing and the retention of Afrikan, Black and Caribbean (ABC) students. Students at both protests only spoke to the media under specific circumstances, wary of how the media would portray them.

This distrust is warranted — local outlets’ coverage of last week’s protests did not accurately reflect the demonstrations as a whole and sensationalized small events. They often did not address the protests’ intents at all.

On International Workers’ Day, KSBW wrote an article titled “UC Santa Cruz May Day protest turns violent,” The piece cited one broken nose and two arrests but focused largely on protesters’ refusals to speak to KSBW. The protesters did not consent to be filmed, but footage of them was published anyway.

While incidents of violence and controversy are important to address in protest coverage, journalists need to do their stories justice by accurately covering the news, not blowing small parts of a story out of proportion just to get more hits.

Coverage of A/BSA’s reclamation of Kerr Hall was similar to the coverage of May Day — the Santa Cruz Sentinel sensationalized smaller events unreflective of the whole protest in its articles. Reporters from the Sentinel and KSBW pushed cameras against the windows of Kerr Hall to take photos without consent, jeopardizing the saftey of some of the students.

Sentinel reporter Ryan Masters, who covered the A/BSA demonstrations, was publicly shamed by a crowd of over 200 people with chants of discontent on Thursday for his disrespectful reporting practices. These included pushing past door barricades in Kerr Hall, eavesdropping on private conversations after being told to leave and disregarding the safety of students by publishing unconsented photos.

Journalism is not a blind crusade for truth. We are not questioning the Sentinel’s or KSBW’s legal right to take those photos and videos — a right protected by the First Amendment. We are questioning their ethics.

Unapologetic for his disrespectful actions, the featured photo on Masters’ article about A/BSA’s demands being met pictured A/BSA leaders “screaming expletives” at Masters. This prioritizes the social well-being of one reporter over the victory of hundreds of students demonstrating for the prosperity and success of ABC students on campus.

As a city reporter who often covers campus news, it is in Masters’ best interest to build a relationship with students, rather than disregard their requests for privacy and then argue with them on Twitter. The wide coalition of students from different organizations, backgrounds and movements worked tirelessly to build a community within Kerr Hall — and Masters was not invited.

This kind of disregard for the validity and relevance of student protests by mainstream media is not isolated to UCSC. Following protests of Milo Yiannopoulos’ controversial presence at UC Berkeley, an LA Times article featured no quotes from student protesters. A Boston Globe article about a student protest against a white nationalist author at Middlebury College in Vermont similarly lacked a protester’s voice. Both pieces read extremely biased against the student protesters.

It’s no wonder protesters won’t speak to the media.

Skewing priorities is dangerous. Reporters’ coverage should not solely cover negative aspects of demonstrations or small incidents unreflective of their intents and the demonstrations as a whole.

We must include a range of perspectives instead of disregarding student voices advocating to change systemic issues like labor injustice, race relations and safety for traditionally underprivileged students.

As student media makers we strongly believe the media has the power to do good. Media has the power to serve as a platform for debate, challenge and ultimately change while representing the voices of the historically underrepresented. We have built our mission statement upon these morals because of the dire need for ethical journalism practices. Local media’s coverage of last week’s events is all the more proof that mainstream media does not yet have its audience’s best interest at heart, especially when it comes to protest coverage.