Historically black colleges and universities have had a rough few weeks in the national media. Morgan State University finds itself on the heels of a five-day international coverage blitz of murder and cannibalism charges levied against a former student. Florida A&M University remains a national news fixture more than six months after the hazing death of Marching 100 drum major Robert Champion.
Both are legitimate, newsworthy stories that have been logged internationally with biased perspectives as a result of their local reporting. Regional papers frame these schools through the physical placement of the stories online and in print, misrepresenting images, unbalanced use of quotes and statistics, stinging editorials and blog content with racist rhetoric in reader comments, all to present an unbalanced idea of failing leadership, fed up students, and detached alumni of the schools and HBCUs in general.
Technology has strengthened the reach and appeal of both the city-wide daily and the 24-hour cable or Internet news machine. The evolving definition of media literacy, and the new danger of media influence against HBCUs and Black Americans demands increased advocacy for fair coverage, or at least a louder call to support responsible black media outlets with readership and financial support to better cover our institutions. Media leverage and representation must become a new focus of the modern civil rights movement, and must be driven by tech-savvy, media immersed black youth.
It's reasonable to expect HBCU students to lead this charge for a new and respectable media agenda for Black America, but they must take their cues from the groups best equipped to lend resources and trusted voices to the media fight - tenured black advocacy organizations.
Organizations like the National Association of Black Journalists, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the United Negro College Fund, the Thurgood Marshall College Fund, the National Action Network and the Rainbow/PUSH Coalition and have built enormous corporate and social leverage with major corporations through the size and influence of their memberships. They have real cultural footprints in Black America and with key metropolitan media outlets throughout the country, constructed in part by honorable missions, large-scale conventions, and committed presence on pressing issues affecting people of color.
The NABJ and NAACP have platforms for media monitoring in their advocacy agendas. But neither currently lists or has historically provided pointed, consistent advocacy for balanced coverage of HBCUs, the institutions creating medical and social research, educational access, political mobilization and economic empowerment for Black people at a rate of speed and execution exceeding all other comparable organizations on planet Earth.
In fact, outside of the direct HBCU-advocacy groups of UNCF, TMCF, and the National Association for Equal Opportunity in Higher Education, none of the aforementioned organizations list historically black colleges and universities as a protected interest for social justice, educational access or community development - despite having deep historical and contemporary alumni ties to HBCUs through their membership and executive committees.
To be fair, both the NABJ and NAACP dip their respective toes into the black pool of HBCU genius. NABJ and the New York Times annually partner to produce the Student Journalism Institute, a real-world training ground for undergraduate journalists which regular admits a respectable number of participants from HBCUs. NAACP chapters at HBCUs are regularly able to earn local media coverage for citizen awareness campaigns and mobilization efforts, usually with the aid of city or regional chapter contacts.
But at least two-generations of Black middle and high school students have grown up exposed to media messaging designed to dismantle HBCU credibility and appeal. Coverage of HBCU athletics and profiles of researchers and scholars teaching at HBCUs have become, with the exception of a few small dailies, non-existent; while coverage of crime and corruption at the HBCU has become the news norm. State appropriations to public HBCUs in Florida, Louisiana, North Carolina, Tennessee and Texas have forced these campuses to devastating program elimination in the best of scenarios, and financial emergency in the worst cases.
Black journalists with local and national reporting clout and editorial voices have remained largely silent on the matter, leaving these campuses to their own under-resourced PR efforts to stem the tide of discontent from political and social opposition at regional and national levels.
Most HBCU executives would freely admit that their campuses have not been the best advocates of their own success, or the most transparent authorities on their failures. But when doing the basic math on how robust, two-way media relationships are created, a lack of internal communications resources plus decreasing political support divided by historically biased reporting and multiplied by constant messages of HBCUs being relics in a "post-racial society" doesn't readily equal HBCUs having a fair shot at proper media representation.
HBCUs nationwide annually reroute the fortunes of black families and communities across America by producing thousands of new graduates, sending them on to graduate study, research labs, corporate leadership positions, rank and influence in the US military, and into classrooms and social work programs throughout the country. No, their stories are not the sexiest ledes in a media culture seeking sex, blood, corruption and controversy, but newsworthy American success stories nonetheless.
It's time for black advocacy organizations with built-to-last influence in advancing the Black American agenda to include HBCUs at the top of their priorities, and to increase the call for an immediate end to unbalanced reporting on these institutions.