Why HBCU Students Don’t Trust The Media

…and why you shouldn’t either.

Courtesy: @JohnNewsomNR

So many of the connections between black people and the United States are fear-driven, the same fear that drives the success of the news industry.

Americans fear violence, poverty, sickness, judgement, and not being free. Black folks fear the exact same things in this world; but we understand, at varying levels, that much of the media’s coverage of these fears is driven by our nation’s belief that we are the root causes or perpetrators of most of these evils.

That’s why bad behavior committed by black folks tends to get more attention, brings out more racist commenters, and earns more ink than bad behavior committed by other people. Most of the balanced coverage of black people and black issues centers around the ‘struggle’ narrative.

To most of us, it is a not-so-subtle reminder that at our worst, we are a scourge on society, but at our best, we are never-say-die fighters swinging and screaming at an invisible foe that only we can feel.

And that’s why the brightest, most innovative and energetic among us, black students, don’t trust the media.

Reading Media Bias

Most black folks don’t think our story is told equitably. Far too often the crimes we commit, the mistakes we make and the opportunities we miss find their way to the front pages and exclusive content sections of newspapers and trade websites, usually affirming for readers the stereotypes of black institutions and the people who run them.

Ironically, the headline from Gallup’s survey of HBCU students illustrates perfectly why students wish they had more say over when and how reporters cover campus issues.

Courtesy: Gallup.com

From reading the headline, liberals, conservatives, racists, militants and everybody in between can come away with an overt message — students at black colleges support violation of Constitutionally-ensured rights of press autonomy. But it starts with the primary question of the survey:

Courtesy: Gallup.com

What if the question was, “Do you think reporters fairly cover student protests held on college campuses?”

Here’s the follow-up question:

Courtesy: Gallup.com

Pro-black translation “Which of the following ways is the most effective in helping press to favorably cover an event?”

Who needs the media? When you have pollsters asking questions which presume black rage, black distrust, and black ignorance of constitutional law, why do we even need to get to how we are represented in newspapers and telecasts?

Let’s Talk About How Media Really Works

Black students frequently get upset because media doesn’t cover their volunteerism in political mobilization, community outreach and mentoring youth.

And to be fair, nobody in the media cares about any of that stuff unless its a slow news day, because mostly white readership for print and online products either doesn’t believe or care about black people doing good things locally.

But students don’t understand that the ‘good news’ media typically cares about, institutions helping people to make money, live healthier lives, or to be happier, does not count unless the range of impact is wide and inclusive of black and white communities. That formula for coverage spans from Langston, OK to Princess Anne, MD.

Now some reporters will resent that, especially those who do an excellent job of providing balanced coverage on HBCUs. Eric Kelderman of the Chronicle, John Dell of the Winston-Salem Journal, Jane Stancill of the News & Observer, and former Tallahassee Democrat writer-turned-FAMU Journalism Professor Doug Blackburn, are a few white reporters who actively research and genuinely talk to black people (at least those who will pick up the phone) to tell a balanced story in good times and bad.

But even they can recall in an instant how much of their HBCU coverage, how many of their headlines could be sorted into piles labeled “positive” or “negative,” “success” or “struggle;” and not because they intend for their work to be imbalanced, but because most of the leads they receive and the likelihood of what an editor will actually run, trends towards those items which are less than favorable.

But What About Black Media?

Black media struggles to survive in an awful vortex of competition, cultural expectations, and currency. John Oliver described it best.

What he didn’t have time to get to is that black news operations are in direct competition with white-owned, white-themed outlets with more marketing power and resources to produce content, and black websites like Media TakeOut, WorldStarHipHop, Bossip which generate wealth from cultural exploitation and celebrity rumor milling — content that all people, regardless of race, can’t get enough of.

But the same news operations we don’t read or watch, we don’t advertise with and don’t share with our networks, we expect them to carry the lion’s share of “our story,” which by the way, we frame around themes and events that no one outside of those actual themes and events, cares about.

And whenever we do run the stories that should be of national importance, like University of the District of Columbia President Ron Mason writing about two Americas, or Howard University yielding a $4.3 million surplus from its hospital, or the Alabama A&M student who discovers an anti-fungal treatment to stem the infection and death of millions of bats nationwide, they flop in comparison to posts like these:

Nevermind that the federal government is working through Congress and the Department of Education to eliminate HBCUs, everything else that doesn’t help black colleges stay open will get the views, just as long as it comes with a nice picture and you post it at either 1:00 pm or 10:00 p.m. on Facebook.

That’s why HBCU students don’t trust the media, because what they see isn’t representative of reality, and reality is so warped by viral culture that we promote that we can’t tell what’s important any more.

What we say we support we actually don’t, and what we shouldn’t support, we rush to do just that. And because we do that, there is no catalyst for mainstream media to pivot from narratives about struggle and fear of black people, towards our humanity, concerns and intellect.

And inevitably, we’ll keep reading and continue being angry. Full story at 11.