The responsibility of all journalists

By Phill Brooks
    As an emeritus faculty member of the University of Missouri School of Journalism, I feel compelled to offer some thoughts about the recent controversy involving the tweets by two school newsroom reporters and the university president's response. I suspect none of them will be pleased by what I write.


    In my opinion, the two reporters violated journalism standards by tweeting personal criticisms about MU police questioning one of them about a spray painting next to the quadrangle statue of Thomas Jefferson. I do not disagree they have a First Amendment right of free speech to say and tweet anything they want. But there are limits.
    Traditional journalism standards restrict a reporter from voicing personal opinion on an issue the reporter or the reporter's newsroom is covering. Journalism is not the only profession restricting free-speech rights.
    Health care providers, by law, are not allowed to talk about individual patient health issues. Lawyers cannot talk about client information without approval. Educators, like I once was, cannot disclose personal student information.
    On the other hand, I think University President Mun Choi was wrong to term staff dissent with the administration "totally counterproductive," as reported by the Columbia Tribune's Rudi Keller. Beyond that, Choi suggested administrators have a responsibility essentially to toe the line when top administrators have made a decision, and if not, "it's time to start looking for another job."
    That argument violates a bedrock principle of academic freedom which includes the right of students, faculty and administrators to speak their minds about university issues pushed by the university administration.
    MU has a long history of faculty and administrative dissent against plans by top university leaders. The most profound in my time was faculty opposition to University of Missouri President Brice Ratchford's 1972 "Role and Scope" plan to consolidate programs among the four campuses.
    Faculty and some administrators at MU were deeply opposed, fearing it would diminish their programs. It deeply angered Ratchford.
    I know, because he and I had a close relationship in which he would confide to me his thoughts in nearly weekly off-the-record conversations—a relationship I never disclosed until well after his death.
    While harshly criticizing the coverage of his plan by the Journalism School's newsroom reporters, I don't remember him ever suggesting it amounted to disloyalty. There is, however, another side to this story.
    What should a newsroom do when a reporter who voices or tweets an opinion on a major issue covered by the newsroom? At the very least, I think the reporter should be admonished and maybe prohibited from covering that issue or agency until the issue dies down.
    Further, the newsroom should be public about the steps taken when a reporter violates newsroom standards. And if a newsroom does not have a policy prohibiting reporters from voicing public opinions about issues covered, the newsroom ought to adopt such a policy immediately and make it public on the newsroom website so everyone can see the standards under which the newsroom operates.
    Maybe the MU Journalism School should adopt a set of standards for all its newsrooms and post them prominently on the school's website, similar to what my Broadcast Department chair directed me to write for KOMU-TV and KBIA radio decades ago before the web.
    My profession is under such attack today that transparency and adherence to journalism standards has become critical to maintaining public trust. A public set of standards for all the newsrooms of the world's first journalism school might help enforce public trust in our profession and set an example for others.
    Finally, I think this episode demonstrates a need for journalism schools and newsrooms to stress caution to reporters about the use of social media -- before they suffer the fate of a couple of close journalism colleagues who were fired because of stupid social media comments written in haste.
    EDITOR’S NOTE: Phill Brooks has been a Missouri statehouse reporter since 1970, making him dean of the statehouse press corps. He is the statehouse correspondent for KMOX Radio, director of MDN and an emeritus faculty member of the Missouri School of Journalism. He has covered every governor since the late Warren Hearnes.