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Perspectives: Educating, Challenging Future Journalists of Color

Sept. 10 will kick off National Historically Black Colleges and Universities Week, when we praise schools that “have allowed many disadvantaged students to attain their full potential through higher education,” in the words of a U.S. Senate resolution. At many HBCUs, those words mean everybody deserves a shot at a college education. But how many are asking whether everybody really does? Overly liberal admissions policies can lead to more work for faculty, frustration for those students who are ready to work and false hopes for those admitted to schools they aren’t really prepared for.

As editor of Black College Wire, a news service that aims to improve the quality of newspapers at HBCUs, I see the problem in both the news and the students. And journalism educators bemoan students’ lack of critical thinking skills, poor command of basic grammar and ignorance about current events.

In June, the Wilmington (Del.) News Journal reported this embarrassing story from Delaware State University:

“Two former DSU admissions staff members say the staff was told to enroll as many as 250 academically unqualified students … because the university was facing a $657,000 budget shortfall and needed the money.”

To be sure, HBCUs provide the extended-family atmosphere many students seek. At Howard University, journalism chair Phillip Dixon points out “we have students who made their parents angry by turning down places like Harvard and MIT.”

He also says some have problems with basic grammar, but compensated in other ways in high school. At Howard, those students are sent to an English teacher for remedial instruction. Dixon also says critical thinking — a key characteristic of a successful journalist — is in shorter supply than it should be.

“They’ve been taught there is one right answer,” he says. Not that “there might be several right answers, and several ways to get to the right answer, and you need to find the one that works for you.”

At Hampton University, Tony Brown, dean of the Scripps Howard School of Communications, tells parents on the school’s Web site: We “find that many freshmen, including those with high GPAs, have serious challenges in GPS (grammar, punctuation and spelling) and English composition.” Thus, the school has started the “Dean’s 6 O’clock Club. The dean meets with serious freshmen at 6 a.m. every Thursday during the first semester.

“These highly-motivated students already recognize that you cannot stay as you are if you want to become what you ought to be and could be,” Brown writes.

This year, the Freedom Forum’s Chips Quinn program, designed to boost diversity in the news business, chose 51 interns. Just two were from HBCUs. “Deficiencies in grammar, punctuation, story organization, AP style as well as poor results on skills tests” were among the reasons some were rejected, says Karen Catone, director of the program.

Nicholas Kristof, a columnist for The New York Times, won a Pulitzer Prize this year for his reporting on the genocide in Darfur, Sudan. He announced a contest for a college student to accompany him to Africa this September. The winner was a White student, Casey Parks, who grew up poor but says she knew Kristof’s work and maintained a collection of what she considered good journalism.

Here’s how the contest was received at Hampton:

“I had Kristof’s sign up for a month,” faculty member Wayne J. Dawkins says. “Even drew the continent with a green marker to add art. Yet, I did not get any takers, and I took the sign down immediately after the deadline.”

Hampton students did apply, but only as part of a class assignment. Jack E. White, who taught a class for seniors, says, “Few of my students knew anything about the contest or the appalling situation in Darfur before they were assigned to apply for the contest.”

Still, White and Dawkins found the experience valuable. “Even though none of them made the list of finalists,” White says, “applying opened their eyes to a world few of them had paid much attention to. I hope that awareness sticks.”

Dixon, at Howard, tells of a schoolwide meeting at which a student complained about having to take news quizzes. A senior complained, too, but for a different reason. He found the quizzes a waste of time “because as a journalist, I know I have to be on top of the news.” His wish was that the others did not need such prods to keep up.
Journalism is a competitive business that needs more young people of color. They need to be challenged, not held back by peers who don’t belong there.

That’s the better way to allow disadvantaged students to attain their
full potential.

Richard Prince edits the online news service Black College Wire, writes the online media diversity column “Journal-isms” for the Maynard Institute for Journalism Education and works part-time as a copy editor at The Washington Post.

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