University of MO Melissa Click Scandal Resulted in New Media Lesson

Alexandra Gratereaux

University of Missouri Melissa Click Scandal Resulted in New Media Lesson for Old Media Institution (In-Depth).

It only took a couple of hours for the video to go viral; a bizarre confrontation between a student journalist and a communications professor during a protest at the University of Missouri last November.

And the fallout was unprecedented. Especially considering the university is home to the oldest journalism school in the United States, maybe even the world. An institution ranked first in the country by the Radio Television Digital News Association, which university officials say, sets the standards for journalism institutions.

In fact, less than a month after the viral incident, the RTDNA announced it had created the First Amendment Defender award to present to Tim Tai, the student photojournalist who stood his ground snapping photos against the swarming crowd of suffocating protesters who were pushing and shoving him while chanting, “Hey hey, ho ho, reporters have got to go!”

But it was the other student photojournalist, Mark Schierbecker, who had recorded the altercation between Tai and the protesters, posting it online within hours.

And it was Schierbecker who was assaulted by the enraged communications professor named Melissa Click, who called for some “muscle” to have him removed from an area he had every right to be in.

But rather than win a First Amendment award, Schierbecker was told by an editor at the independent student newspaper where he was a contributor to stop telling reporters he was a contributor, claiming it is a “conflict of interest” now that he was part of the story.

Just three months earlier, his photo of a topless protest on campus, along with the accompanying article, generated the most views in the history of the Maneater’s website. That is, until November, when the stories of the resignations of University of Missouri President Tim Wolfe and Chancellor R. Bowen Loftin took the top spot.

On the other hand, the dean of the University of Missouri School of Journalism, David Kurpius, came to Tai’s defense the day after the viral incident, saying the student photojournalist “handled himself professionally and with poise” against the protesters, most who were students, but one who was another in-your-face faculty member named Janna Basler.

But the dean never mentioned Schierbecker in his statement, even though his right to record was also infringed upon, and even though it was his video that captured the confrontation.

The difference is that Schierbecker majored in history and Tai majored in journalism.

That meant that Tai was considered a “real” journalist in their eyes, a product of the prestigious program that proudly boasts of the “Missouri Method,” a meticulous approach to journalism where every story is vetted through several editors before publication.

Tai also spent a semester working at the Columbian Missourian, the award-winning newspaper that has been in existence since 1908, the year the school of journalism was founded. Only journalism majors are allowed to contribute to the Missourian, which gives it a sense of elitism.

And Schierbecker was considered a “citizen” journalist, which was why he was only allowed to contribute to the Maneater,the student-run newspaper founded in 1955 that runs independently from the school of journalism.

Not being indoctrinated in the Missouri Method, Schierbecker wasted no time in uploading the video to Facebook where it quickly went viral, taking a life of its own and becoming an even bigger story than the unfolding drama that was taking place on campus that day with the unexpected resignations of the top two administrators.

Nevertheless, Schierbecker almost became an afterthought in the mainstream media and the student publications covering the story afterwards, which focused most of their attention on Tai and on Click, even though without his video, there would be no story.

The fact that Click was listed as an associate professor on the journalism school’s website left the esteemed program scrambling to distance itself from her rather than report the story.

And the fact that Click was listed as chairwoman of the Student Publications Committee, which oversees the Maneater, left that newspaper scrambling to distance itself from her rather than report the story.

The two publications, who pride themselves on taking journalism seriously, abiding by strict ethics, fierce reporting and unadulterated accuracy, ended up being scooped by almost every major news site in the country, even though the incident took place on their own campus.

The incident also raised the question as to whether or not the famed school of journalism has kept up with the ever-evolving media landscape where everybody and anybody is a potential journalist at any given moment.

After all, neither the Maneater nor the Missourian reported on the Melissa Click incident until the following day, even though it was being reported by everybody from the New York Times to CNN the day of the incident, not to mention going hugely viral on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube.

And when they did report on the incident, it was mostly to distance themselves from Click by explaining we should not believe what we are reading on the university’s websites because her role, in reality, had nothing to do with either newspaper.

In fact, the dean of the journalism school – as well as several alumni and staff – accused Photography is Not a Crime of sloppy reporting because we associated Click with the school in our article, which like every other national news site, was posted before they posted their article on the incident.

But screenshots below show she was clearly associated with both the school of journalism and the Maneater through her role as chair of the Student Publications Committee. At least in name only.

But you can see they were also quick to remove her name as chair of the committee, leaving it vacant for a day or so before filling it with another name.

Kurpius stressed how peeved he was that so many news sites inferred that Click was a journalism professor when she merely held a “courtesy appointment” position in the school of journalism.

“She is not a journalism professor, her courtesy appointment only had her working with doctorate students,” he said.

“And had reporters been following ‘the Missouri Method,’ they would have contacted the school to determine whether or not she was a journalism professor,” Kurpius added.

Instead, if they were like PINAC, they went on the school’s website to find her photo and profile on the school of journalism’s webpage, which listed her as an assistant professor, adjunct assistant professor, and if you keep reading, “courtesy faculty.”

That page has since been deleted but here is the screenshot.

At the time, the above page was accessed through a domain address that listed her as “staff” for the journalism school, a link that now redirects to her profile page at the Department of Communication, which falls under the School of Arts and Science, independent of the School of Journalism.

“That’s an error on our part,” Kurpius explained. “They made a mistake on how they built the website.”

As both newspapers tried to distance themselves from Click, Schierbecker fielded calls from journalists from all over the world while wondering if the Missourian would even contact him.

“I waited all day for someone [from The Missourian] to reach out to me. It kind of surprised me,” Schierbecker said. “The Missourian has enough reporters and there are no shortage of reporters and students who were interested in covering this.”

He was finally contacted by a reporter from the Missourian at 4:54 p.m. on November 10, more than 24 hours after the incident. By then, he had already been contacted by Buzzfeed, Breitbart, USA Today, Russia Today, the New York Daily News and CNN.

And he had also filed a criminal complaint against Click, which is still being reviewed by the prosecutor’s office.

But the reporter from the Missourian assumed he would not want to be interviewed, apparently figuring he would be indoctrinated by the Missouri Method and not want to be part of the story.

However, Schierbecker has been very outspoken about this incident, not necessarily because he wants to be part of the story, but because he wants her criminally charged and terminated – as do many other people.

Tai, on the other hand, is taking the traditional journalistic role by offering little opinion, putting the incident behind him, saying only that he was there to do a job and he was not going to let them stop him from doing his job.

And Schierbecker is quick to say that Tai is well-deserving of the First Amendment Defender award considering how well he stood his ground against the mob of pushy protesters.

But he is not happy how the Maneater sent him an email telling him to remove his affiliation with the newspaper on his Facebook page.

He was stunned by the email from the Maneater considering less than three months earlier, they had him listed as a “senior staff photographer” in a photo topping the second most popular article on the site.

Here is the link to the conflict of interest he supposedly became by getting assaulted by the chair of the committee that oversees the Maneater.

He stated the following to PINAC in a Facebook message:

Clearly they are proud enough to take credit for my work when it works for them, but not when there are university politics involved.
The stories that didn’t run, the editor who didn’t get back to you, the typical screw-ups that typically come with being a scrappy student paper – they don’t matter to me. I’ve always been able to give them a pass on this because this is no one’s full-time job.
I think that as a newsroom, you back your reporters when they represent your values in their reporting, especially when they do so at their own peril. When I identified myself as a Maneater reporter to the media, I did so knowing that I had represented The Maneater well. I’m not looking for The Maneater to go to bat for me, but you don’t disinvite your reporters from reporting at their own newspaper.
I adhere to the Maneater editorial principle:
“If you want to keep us out, better bar the door. And don’t try getting rough or screaming ‘libel’ when a Maneater reporter crashes your meetings. When The Maneater gets mad, all hell is going to break loose. You’ve been warned.”
If The Maneater doesn’t feel that it can follow those standards anymore, then maybe they should consider changing their policy

He said the Maneater did not contact him about the Click story until Thursday, three days later, and did not interview him until the following Monday, one week later. By then, it was pretty much old news.

On December 31, the Maneater mentioned the photo he took for them in August on its Facebook page as part of a countdown to the most popular stories of the year. Those two stories are also the most popular stories of all time.

The Missouri Method

In a telephone interview with PINAC, David Kurpius, dean of the Missouri School of Journalism, said they purposely chose not to prioritize on the incident because they were focusing on the resignations of the university president and chancellor.

He also stressed that a news story should never be about the journalist, which is a time-honored principle for journalists in the 20th century.

But if there is anything we’ve learned in the 21st century, especially here at PINAC, is that sometimes the journalist becomes the story whether he or she wants to or not.

The videos shows that neither Tai or Schierbecker sought out to be the story. They just became the story because they were trying to report the story.

Kurpius, nevertheless, continued to stress the Missouri Method, the practice of carefully confirming all the facts before publishing a story.

“When it comes to social media (reporting) we see our responsibility being the same (as print),” Kurpius said.

“Even if it means getting the tweet up a minute later, we rather get it up slower and be right than faster and be wrong. First and wrong is not really first.”

Veteran journalism professor Sandra Davidson, who teaches the Communications Law class and is the Missourian’s attorney, agreed with the dean, but acknowledges “the story flipped” from the resignations of the administrators to Tai and Click.

Yet she stands by the paper’s decision on holding off the story to avoid “a disaster.”

“Our jobs as journalists is to inform not misinform,” Davidson said. “I was horrified and angry. That was my initial reaction to the Melissa Click video. But, I did not have context. I only had a limited view of what had happened. We need to be accurate and giving context is ideal.”

But Schierbecker strongly disagrees. And clearly so did every other news outlet who covered the story.

“Just the video itself would have been enough,” Schierbecker said. “You would think they would have merited something.”

The Missouri Method is without a doubt, a solid, respectable approach to journalism. The kind of reporting that brought down the Nixon presidency in 1974.

But in many ways, it is an approach more suited for the pre-internet days of the 20th century where a newspaper article would not get published until the newspaper gets published, usually the following morning.

The rules have changed in this viral era of cyber news where a video can be published in minutes and be viewed by thousands within hours as it did in this case.

Today, it’s not only important to get it right. It’s important to get it first. Especially if it’s breaking news happening in your backyard.

That is why it took Schierbecker less than three hours to post the video of the crazed professor slapping his camera and telling him he needed to “get out,” then calling for backup to have him physically removed when he asserted his right to remain there recording.

“Hey who wants to help me get this reporter out of here? I need some muscle over here!” she yelled.

Schierbecker posted the video on his Facebook page at 2:36 p.m., about three hours after the incident, and by 4:17 p.m., CNN’s Senior Reporter for Media and Politics Dylan Byers was tweeting about it.

By early evening, major news sites, including the Los Angeles Times’ Matt Pearce and The Daily Banter had run the story.

And by early Tuesday morning, it was the most popular story trending on social media, prompting ire from journalists and citizens alike.

But it was not until late Tuesday afternoon that both the Missourian and the Maneater published pieces about it.

Schierbecker says the delayed response in reporting on the incident from both university newspapers shows they have not evolved to journalism in the 21st century.

“Even the Boston Herald covered this,” Schierbecker said. “So did The New York Times and The Washington Post. Even if they covered it from the angle of ‘this isn’t the big story,’ they still should have informed their audience. They failed.”

“This is a very paper centric university,” Schierbecker added. “We just finally got rid of our pay wall for the website a year ago to provide digital copies and access to students for free. The editor-in-chief of The Missourian (Tom Warhover) was very reluctant to do this. He was really dragging his heels.”

Since the story broke, Kurpius says the journalism school used this incident “as a refresher” of the First Amendment and published an online guide discussing Freedom of the Press.

“We had 65,000 clicks in the first day we posted the guide on our site,” said Kurpius. “We really are trying to be the leaders in helping students and faculty grasp the First Amendment in its entirety. We care about transparency.”

But Schierbecker says it needs to do more while “gradually dragging themselves to the 21st century.”

“I noticed the journalism program does not emphasize on video enough,” said Schierbecker. “When I was recording the incident with Melissa Click I noticed no one else was recording this. They could have easily whipped out their smartphone. The journalism school is not teaching kids new media strategies.”

Click, whom Schierbecker says “obviously has not been trained in new media technology,” and lost her courtesy appointment in the school of journalism, reached out to Schierbecker via email after the incident.

“I’m the professor in the video you shot. I’d love to have the chance to talk with you,” Click asked Schierbecker in an email forwarded to PINAC.

Schierbecker and Tai both agreed to chat with her contingent on Click giving a public apology and discussing the viral video on-air in the school’s radio station KBIA 91.3FM.

“It would be for about 15 minutes,” Schierbecker responded to Click.

Click, whose been an assistant professor on campus for nearly a decade, never responded to his email.

“She has a tenure review this year,” said Schierbecker. “I am surprised she has not been fired or investigated.”

The Backlash Against Click

Last month, more than 100 republican Missouri legislators signed a letter to university administrators demanding that she and Basler, the other faculty member involved in the fracas, be fired, accusing Click of “inappropriate and criminal actions.”

On Wednesday, a member of the University of Missouri Board of Curators also began calling for her termination, saying she was an “embarrassment” to the university.

Also on Wednesday, The Chronicle of Higher Education reported about the 1,100 pages of Melissa Click’s emails it received through a public records request dated November 9.

In the emails, an array of professors, journalists and students expressed how Click should be fired for her actions towards Schierbecker. She also received refresher courses on the First Amendment, the Constitution and Freedom of the Press. Comparisons of her behavior to Putin’s Russia and Mao’s China were also in the mix of emails as well as many death and rape threats.

And the Facebook page, Hey Hey Ho Ho Melissa Click Needs to Go is still active with more than 1,300 followers.

And the Boone County Prosecutor’s Attorney’s Office may still file criminal charges against her.

However, more than 100 faculty members came to her defense this week, signing a letter in support of her, saying she was acting as “an ally to students who were protesting” and insisting she had been “wronged in the media.”

Only two of the faculty members were from the school of journalism.

And the writer of the letter neglected to capitalize the words “first amendment” while insisting on capitalizing the word “University,” even though the latter is not being used as part of a formal title. Screenshot is below.

That might be a minor detail to those who don’t obsess about the First Amendment or general style rules, but it is a huge detail to those of us who take the craft of journalism seriously.

And it is that disregard for the First Amendment that will always be associated with the University of Missouri as long as Click remains employed.

PINAC Publisher Carlos Miller contributed to this report.

UPDATE: In order to keep this article from longer than it already did, we did not explain the issues that led to the protests on the University of Missouri campus because those were complex as well. However, Wikipedia does a nice job of putting it all into context. CM

UPDATE II: Melissa Click was criminally charged on January 25, 2016.


Citizen Journalism