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Will They Overcome?

Will They Overcome?

The struggle for press freedom continues at Black colleges.

If The Meter at Tennessee State University and The Hilltop at Howard University are indicators, student newspapers at historically Black colleges and universities have taken giant strides since 2000, when Black Issues In Higher Education found many Black campus papers struggling and inadequate.

“All the News Doesn’t Make It to Print” (Feb. 17, 2000) described the woeful state of HBCU student publications: administrative problems, a lack of resources, limited technology and little or no training of students and advisers. Many of the papers were published only two or three times a year, and only a handful were available online.

Today, The Hilltop is published five days a week. And even with the accelerated production schedule, the staff has produced in-depth stories, including a critical examination of Howard University Hospital’s emergency care. The Meter, which was published every two weeks in 2000, later became weekly and plans to move to a twice-a-week publication this fall. It began featuring streaming video on its Web site last spring and won “Best Weekly Newspaper” and “Best Online Newspaper” at the HBCU Student Newspaper Contest this year.

And there are other signs of progress. Florida A&M University’s student paper, The Famuan, has gone from weekly to three times a week during the last three years. FAMU’s journalism school also publishes Journey, an award-winning student magazine. Southern University’s Southern Digest is published twice a week and is beginning a magazine this fall.

All of these school papers have active Web sites that are updated as news breaks on their campuses, preparing the student journalists for the newsrooms they will work in as professionals.

“An increase in the students’ enthusiasm about journalism,” is responsible for much of The Meter’s success, says Pamela E. Foster, faculty adviser and an assistant professor of mass communication. She suggests that The Meter’s journalists feel an obligation to inform other students about events in the university and the community.

The Hilltop’s former editor-in-chief, Ruth Tisdale, now a reporter at the Roanoke Times in Virginia, says she persuaded Howard administrators to provide the resources for a daily paper.

“I presented a proposal showing them it would be good for the
staff who have to compete with students from other daily papers, and it would be good for the school’s reputation — and that in the end we would make more money [on advertising]. And we did,” she says.

Tisdale also assembled a staff of dedicated student journalists “willing to work until 4 a.m. and then go home and write a paper for an 8 a.m. class.”

But editors and advisers at other HBCUs sigh in amazement when they hear about daily papers, staffers working through the night and Web sites with streaming video. As impressive as these achievements are, they do not represent the norm.

Most of the 90 four-year HBCUs report having some sort of student-produced newspaper, but only about half actually produce the publications on a regular basis, and only 25 of those publications are online. While low, that figure more than triples the number of online HBCU student papers in 2000.

“[Being online] is my No. 1 goal this year. Being online is the standard in journalism today, but our administrators have a misunderstanding about journalism,” says Marvin T. Anderson, a summer intern at the Detroit Free Press and incoming editor in chief of the Hampton University Script. “They have some prototype in their heads of what journalism is all about, and it’s PR. They really don’t understand news and the need to be online.” Since 2004, students have been trying to revive the Script’s Web site, which was ordered shut down after a bitter censorship dispute in 2003.

Anderson says his other goals are to increase the frequency of publication from biweekly to weekly and to get the administration to pay staff members. Only the two top editors receive compensation.

While more HBCU newspapers are publishing regularly and going online, the issue of censorship and control appears to be intensifying, even at many public HBCUs, where the First Amendment covers student media.

Terence Nimox, journalism instructor and adviser to the Campus Chronicle at Alcorn State University in Mississippi, believes freedom of the press is an almost unattainable goal at some institutions.

“The main issue is that the HBCU newspapers and administrators cannot by protocol be on the same team,” Nimox says. “The job of the administrators is to paint an excellent picture of their campus. The newspapers, however, have to … document the truth no matter who may be hurt or offended.”

The conflict between presenting a positive image and reporting the truth is exacerbated when public relations administrators also serve as newspaper advisers, as is the case at Delaware State University, Hampton, Spelman College and Tuskegee University, among others.
Yvonne T. Prabhu, a former copy editor at the Spelman Spotlight, believes student newspapers need “advisers who aren’t conflicted between their roles on campus and the need to be committed to the search for truth.”

Nate Delesline III, a reporter for the Delaware State Hornet, agrees. He says the adviser of his student newspaper is also the university spokesman. “Sometimes he’s the person we have to contact to get information for our stories — and if it involves university officials,
he isn’t always forthcoming, so it’s a problem.” 

For Prabhu, trying to do “real journalism” on her campus hasn’t worked out. A non-traditional student who returned to college after 30 years, she was the Spotlight’s copy editor for a few months, but she was dropped from the staff after she invited news professionals to critique the student paper and help train the editors. Undeterred, Prabhu persists in her journalistic endeavors. She recently had a reader review published in The New York Times.

“The HBCU newspaper, in many cases, is asked to sell its integrity to the administration in order to survive,” Nimox says. “Advisers are often threatened with job loss.” In addition, he says parents fear their children will not graduate if they “make trouble.” In some cases, parents have advised their sons and daughters against working on the newspaper staff.

One of those daughters is Hampton’s Bravetta Hassell. “My mother says to watch out, get your work done and get out of there,” says Hassell. Currently a summer intern at The Washington Post, she resigned her position as editor of the Script last fall “out
of frustration.”

At North Carolina A&T State University, editors of the A&T Register took the unusual step in February of attaching a disclaimer on a story that had been partially reviewed in advance by an administrator. The administrative oversight could be a violation of the First Amendment.

Chad Roberts, the reporter who wrote the story, says the administrator “was very persistent and said I had a moral and ethical responsibility” to allow him to see the story. “I compromised and went over his quotes and some of the facts with him.

“After all that, the guy later said he was misquoted — and he reviewed all the quotes,” says Roberts, who graduated in May and is now a copy editor at the Citrus County Chronicle in Florida.

Despite these issues, progressive administrators do exist at HBCUs, and more may be coming on board.

“We have had two chancellors who are supportive and who recognize the value of a free student press,” says Bruce dePyssler of North Carolina Central University, referring to former chancellor Julius Chambers and current chancellor Dr. James Ammons.

 “Chambers set the tone for the free student press and it’s become part of the ethos of the university,” dePyssler says. “It wasn’t always so, they tell me.”

Ammons says his background in political science guides his views. “You can’t censor or limit the media — that’s a part of living in America, where we have freedom of the press. In order for our system to work, the press has to operate freely.”

But Ammons admits that the news isn’t always pleasant. “Sometimes the truth hurts, but as long as they are reporting the truth, we can’t be afraid of it. If they report something erroneously, there are ways to address it.” Besides, he adds, “In the administration of the university, we have to be transparent.”

As a result, when NCCU became the focus of international media coverage in March after one of its students accused members of Duke University’s men’s lacrosse team of raping her, the student newspaper covered the story without fear of interference or retaliation.

Ammons credits his years at FAMU as provost under former president Dr. Frederick S. Humphries for his understanding of the student press. Dr. Valerie White, assistant journalism professor and faculty adviser to The Famuan, agrees that FAMU administrators have, in general, been supportive of a free student press.

The newspaper has encountered more conflict recently, she says, from the Student Government Association, which controls the purse strings.

At FAMU, North Carolina A&T and Texas Southern University, among others, SGA leaders have attempted to influence or reduce funding to student newspapers in recent years. But at most institutions, battles with administrators have remained the most difficult challenge to a truly independent student press.

White suggests “a meeting at the beginning of the school year to foster a dialogue … so both parties will know how to work with one another and to explain expectations and legal issues concerning the student press.”

Tisdale, who served as Hilltop editor for two years, says she initiated such a gathering when she ran the paper.

“When I became editor, there were problems between the previous editor and the administration, so the administration didn’t want to give us money for computers. I had to meet with them and let them know we all wanted the same thing — what was best for the university. In the case of the newspaper, that’s content that is fair and balanced.”

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