If you spend any time on social media, you might have noticed a major eruption of outrage over the past day or so, sparked by an incident at the University of Missouri involving a young journalist. While reporting on a protest by a group of activists who had just forced the university’s president to resign, he was pushed and harassed by the demonstrators, as well as by a faculty member.
In a sense—as even the young journalist himself admitted — this was a sideshow compared to the real event: a university administrator stepping down under pressure because of his failure to act on repeated racist incidents on campus.
At the same time, however, the incident has become a magnet for an ongoing debate over free speech and freedom of the press, and the gray line between private and public. And it raises some interesting questions about the role the media play in an age in which everyone is their own media outlet, and the traditional press no longer has the kind of all-powerful reputation it used to in the good old days.
Please don’t report on us
To set the scene: Demonstrators at the University of Missouri were celebrating their victory in helping to force president Timothy Wolfe out of office. As part of this, they set up a kind of Occupy-style camp with tents in the school’s quad, which is clearly a public space (and has even been officially declared one under Missouri law, as a number of journalists noted).
At some point, Tim Tai, a student journalist working for ESPN, wanted to take photos of the camp, but demonstrators told him not to, in some cases forcefully, and then formed a line to try and prevent him from walking past them into the quad.
After repeatedly expressing his First Amendment right to be on the property and to report the story, Tai was harassed by a group including Melissa Click, an assistant professor at the school of mass media at the university. At one point, Click asked for “some muscle over here” to have Tai removed (Click has since released a statement apologizing for her actions).
Among other things, this incident became a flash point about the extent of First Amendment protections. And it also sparked discussion about the validity of demands by black activists and others at a number of universities for what some have called “safe spaces”—that is, a space without intrusive or divisive elements like the media.
Rights vs. respect
From a legal point of view, it’s pretty clear that the Missouri demonstrators don’t really have a leg to stand on. In addition to the state law declaring the quad a public area, the First Amendment protects the right of journalists to report in public spaces, and the “right” to define your own private or “safe” space doesn’t trump that. So Tai was quite right to lecture the demonstrators on the First Amendment.
That said, however, what happened in Missouri also brings up issues around how much respect journalists should have for the people they report on. Just because there’s a First Amendment doesn’t mean the media has the right to do anything and everything to invade or disrupt people’s lives.
In fact, the Society of Professional Journalists has a code that specifically describes having respect for those who are the subject of a news report, especially if they aren’t used to dealing with the press. Does that mean the demonstrators were right to try and shove a journalist out of the quad. No. But any journalistic effort in a case like that has to be a back-and-forth, a negotiation, not a forced entry.
Twitter has triggered a similar debate over whether something can be simultaneously public and semi-private. Just because you say something in a tweet that is clearly available to the public, does that justify a media outlet making your tweet the centerpiece of a story that gets splashed all over the country? Maybe. Or maybe not. But it’s not really something the First Amendment is equipped to handle.
No one needs the media
It’s not surprising that many activists, particularly in the black community, might feel suspicious about the mass media’s intentions, in part because of the coverage of events like the demonstrations in Ferguson, Mo. and elsewhere after the shooting of Michael Brown. If you were routinely portrayed in the worst possible light, would you be inviting press attention?
I think the Univ. of Missouri events also point to an ongoing shift in the way that the traditional media are seen by groups like the demonstrators there: No longer as a potential partner, but as an adversary. And some of the backlash is likely tied up with the fact that activists don’t really need the mainstream media as much as they used to. As sociologist Zeynep Tufekci described it in a recent paper:
“Emergence of participatory media may change the power media have to frame social movements, as social movement actors can forcefully offer their framing, diffuse their preferred framing to large audiences in ways that would have been simply impossible or prohibitively costly before social media, challenge journalists directly, or create a strong enough attention around their own framing that it becomes harder to ignore.”
If you have the tools and resources and platforms with which to craft your own message and tell your own story, you’re much less likely to look favorably on the traditional media’s ability to do that for you. That goes as much for Amazon responding to the New York Times on Medium about major feature on the company as it does for the demonstrators at the Univ. of Missouri. And that’s a painful lesson the mainstream media are going to have to swallow sooner or later.
You can follow Mathew Ingram on Twitter at @mathewi, and read all of his posts here or via his RSS feed. And please subscribe to Data Sheet, Fortune’s daily newsletter on the business of technology.