College Journalists Focus on Adding Intention to Media Narratives

It’s more than a project. It’s a revolution. So says Alexis Wray, editor-in-chief of The A&T Register, the independent student news organization of the country’s largest HBCU (Historically Black College and University), North Carolina A&T.

Zila Sanchez (left) and Alexis Wray (right), editors at The A&T Register, share lessons they have already learned about The Black Narrative in Greensboro, NC at the North Carolina College Media Association 2019 conference on Feb. 23, 2019.

As she described the Black Narrative — the initiative she and her staff are creating as part of Poynter’s College Media Project this school year — Wray’s soft voice grew stronger. Her message clearly resonated with dozens of her college media peers at the state’s largest-ever North Carolina College Media Association Conference on Feb. 23, 2019. Nearly 50 student editors and reporters signed up to help build a collaborative effort to better represent marginalized and still-too-often-stereotyped voices in their own communities and across the state.

A teaser video for The Black Narrative project highlights media coverage of A&Ts campus.

Wray and her team have watched and heard about the headlines about A&T in local media for years. Aside from college sports highlights, most stories in print and broadcast media about A&T in general focus on crime and violence, she said. Wray noted that even stories about the school’s homecoming, which is known as the “Greatest Homecoming on Earth,” typically allude to increased police presence more than the event’s economic boost to Greensboro.

Who tells the Black Narrative?

The A&T journalists wanted to find evidence that their perception of media imbalance was rooted in reality, not just in isolated negative news stories. They decided to take a comprehensive approach by comparing the demographics of the staff of the city’s paper of record, The News & Record, to Greensboro’s general population. The latest census data shows Greensboro to be a majority-minority city, made up of 41 percent Black/African Americans, 7.3 percent Latino/Hispanics, 2.5 percent mixed race and 4.4 percent Asians versus 48 percent whites. At The News & Record, though, 82 percent of the 22-person staff is white. Less than 10 percent of those 22 staff members, or just two people, identify as Black.

Could the lack of representation of minorities in the staff play a role in its story selection and coverage of the historic school? Certainly the lack of minority voices in the newsroom narrows the perspectives of and internal feedback to reporters and editors as they go about their work. Since the demographics in Greensboro are representative of many of the audiences of local news operations, it is critical to note and remember this: neither the makeup of the newsroom nor the story selections need be intentionally biased to result in bias and harm.

Staff of the NC A&T Register take a break for lunch and a keynote about community engagement in news gathering by Alicia Bell of Free Press. The staff took home more than three times the number of awards for their work than they did in 2018.

As journalists and documenters of our world, we can, and we must, hold two realities simultaneously: first, that most journalists do their best to be fair and accurate in their work; second, that all journalists carry with them biases that influence the sources they interview, the quotes they include in (and exclude from) their work and the voices that influence their follow-up research.

We understand that news is a “reaction” business. Breaking news and meeting deadlines is often prized above accuracy by news outlets. Posting news to multiple media platforms further complicates the journalism process, creating a false sense of urgency to break news without time to consider the cost to those we cover. But as these fledgling college journalists are learning first-hand, none of those realities absolves journalists from the responsibility that comes with shaping the perceptions of their audiences.

Intent isn’t required, being intentional is

In the Poynter College Media Project, we talk a lot about intention in newsgathering and storytelling. We talk about how easy it can be to unintentionally perpetuate negative — and harmful — media stereotypes. We also talk about the importance of providing space and time for underrepresented community voices.

We believe that journalists can, and in fact journalists must, be intentional about their work. Being intentional not only leads to richer coverage and increased accountability, it also builds important relationships and community trust. (Trust in media, as new research shows, remains a significant problem for journalism.)

NC A&T Register Managing Editor Zila Sanchez tweeted the logo for the school’s Poynter College Media Project, the Black Narrative, during the NC College Media Association conference in Greensboro, Feb. 23, 2019.

Wray is learning and sharing that lesson. At the conference, she and Managing Editor Zila Sanchez presented the limited coverage and/or misleading headlines they had found in stories about NC A&T in Greensboro media. When Wray contacted The News & Record to talk about the Black Narrative and the preliminary findings, her persistence paid off. The NC A&T journalists are now working on a plan to share feature stories with the News & Record as part of ongoing conversations about how the daily paper can better illuminate the fuller realities of NC A&T.

Through their work, Wray and her team continue a storied NC A&T history of illuminating injustice and taking a stand against racism. In 1960, four NC A&T freshman sat down at stools in a Greensboro Woolworth and the A&T Four made Civil Rights history. Today, NC A&T student journalists are sitting down with local editors and reporters and also making a case for equity and fairness, this time in media coverage.

At the same North Carolina College Media Association Conference, communication scholar and A&T Liberal Arts Department Chair Damion Waymer, PhD, shared his research about coverage of HBCUs in The Chronicle of Higher Education. His review highlighted a pattern of framing HBCUs as cash-strapped institutions, known more for dysfunctional administrations than academic excellence. With a few notable exceptions, the Black Narrative for higher education mirrored the mainstream press tendencies. Student journalists, whose eyes opened wide as Waymer explained the disheartening data, lined up to learn more about Waymer and his work.

Yasmine Regester (left), senior reporter at The Carolina Peacemaker; the author (Elissa Yancey); and Damion Waymer, PhD, communication scholar and Chair of the Department of Liberal Arts at North Carolina A&T; after the panel: “Black Narrative: How Beliefs Shape Coverage of News,” moderated by Alexis Wray, on Feb. 23, 2019.

Linking representation and trust

During Wray and Sanchez’s afternoon session about their Poynter College Media Project, audience members shared their own stories of minority representation in student media. One Black student from a predominantly white institution (PWI) explained how she had joined the school paper because she hadn’t seen students who looked like her reflected in its coverage. Being the “only one” in her newsroom, she confessed, was stressful. Around the room, students nodded their heads. Wray and Sanchez offered to connect across campuses, to share stories and encouragement. “It’s hard work,” Wray said. “But you are setting an example that others can follow.”

No longer is it enough to share one-sided narratives, the students agreed. No longer is there an excuse not to be intentional about coverage, about representation and about the impact of the news they create and the news they share.

It’s a story that hasn’t changed since my days as a college journalist at a PWI. When groups of people are not represented — or their appearances are limited to sports and crime pages — their distrust, frustration and the scale of inequity grows.

Staff of The A&T Register celebrate the end of a successful conference with adviser Emily Harris (back row, center, glasses), Dean of the College of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences Dr. Frances Ward-Johnson (front left, boots), and Interim Journalism and Mass Communication Department Chair Gail Wiggins, MS (front right, hat).

How can collaboration and cooperation make a difference? It starts with trust and it builds into that revolution Wray is working to support. It starts with student journalists researching deeply and reaching out broadly. With all of us taking the chance of unanswered calls. Bracing ourselves for rejection. Persisting and resisting.

It takes connecting with allies and support networks — the Poynter College Media Project, City Bureau, ProPublica, Report for America, the Solutions Journalism Network, Trusting News and Hearken, to name a few — where new ways of doing journalism are bridging divides, promoting civil discourse and working toward building better-informed, more equitable and more connected communities.

Alexis Wray (left, Editor in Chief), Brittany Van Pelt (center, Digital Media Director) and Zila Sanchez (right, Managing Editor) lead the school’s Black Narrative project.

It takes using journalism as it must be used today — not simply to parrot talking points, but to inform intentionally and thoughtfully, reminding ourselves of the impact of our stories and the voices we do and don’t include in them.

It takes seeking truth instead of settling for false equivalence. It takes being comfortable with being uncomfortable. It takes leading instead of being led by divisive forces with clear agendas that thrive on misunderstanding, chaos and fear. It takes claiming with pride our role as documenters of history, in all of its richness.

Know another great news effort? Please share in the comments below so I can add it to our list!

Author, journalist, educator, community builder. Author, Day By Day; co-founder, A Picture’s Worth; teacher, The Poynter Institute. Cincinnati, Ohio.

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