When the discourse gets ugly (#FreeMikeDixon)

Newsrooms love to use engagement teams to talk about fun stuff. Easy stuff. You know, pictures of Christmas trees and fall foliage. But when it comes to more sensative conversations, many of us aren’t quite sure what to do. 

Today at the Missourian, we found ourselves wondering just how (or if) we should talk about the Twitter conversation surrounding a woman’s accusations that Missouri basketball player Michael Dixon raped her in August. Dixon has been suspended from the team since October. No charges were filed as a result of the woman’s report, and the police never interviewed him during their investigation.

The hashtag #FreeMikeDixon first appeared on Twitter after he was suspended in October, before people knew the reason behind the action. After media outlets such as The Columbia Daily Tribune and the Missourian published detailed accounts of the accusations, some of the tweets took a more menacing tone. 

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I can’t speak to Dixon’s guilt or innocence, but I am interested in exploring the community’s reaction to a woman who came forward and said a Mizzou athlete raped her. 

On a superficial level, you can repost some of the comments in support of Dixon and some that support his accuser. Conversely, journalists can ignore the conversation because so much of it is graphic and profane. But I wonder what this accomplishes.

Sometimes reflecting the conversations people are having in the community is not enough. I think sometimes journalists should ask themselves what they can add to the dialogue. For this story, that could mean searching for the questions or misunderstandings that seem to be circulating. For example, a few people in online comments seemed to be under the impression that the Student Conduct Committee is run entirely by students when university faculty members make up the majority of the committee.   

What if we moved even farther outside of our comfort zone and tried to answer the question: What is rape? How can this kind of publicity affect the accused and the accuser?

What if journalists joined an ongoing public conversation and tried to add to it instead of just parroting it back to readers? 

These questions challenged me in the newsroom. I didn’t (and don’t) know where exactly my role as a journalist ends, particularly with stories as heavy and personal as this one.

What I do know is this: We don’t serve our community by assuming it isn’t capable of having nuanced conversations about challenging subjects. We aren’t doing our jobs as journalists if we cover our ears when a prevalent narrative makes us uncomfortable.

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