Green. It surrounded us as summer held a hot grip on this slice of North Carolina, where the late September days can still beat with the heat of July. We drove into the aptly named Greensboro along boulevards and parkways, divided and surrounded by the richness of the remaining season. Lush shrubs, trees and neatly manicured medians signaled a pride in nature here as well as efforts to control at least these most visible pieces of it.
Not far off the roads, though, we noted still-flooded farms and creeks; remnants of Hurricane Florence lingering as reminders of the limitations of roadway beautification efforts in the face of nature’s power.
Poynter College Media Project co-teacher Fara Warner and I came to this city in the center of North Carolina with a different kind of climate change in mind. At North Carolina A&T, our destination for a two-day training session with college media editors and staff, we worked with students to unpack an ambitious year-long project that puts accountability journalism into action on their campus and in their communities. What we discovered together is how fresh approaches to authenticity, accuracy and accountability can shape not only stories, but the people who share them, in ways both planned and unexpected, both new and rooted in history.
As we neared the end of our first day of training at NCAT, the editor in chief of the student newspaper, Alexis Wray, helped a local pizza delivery man navigate his way to and from the classroom where we worked. (Day One pizza is, we’ve learned, a welcome reward after hours of journalistic thinking.)
He explained that the campus of the country’s largest historically black college and university (HBCU) was tougher to navigate than his campus, the nearby University of North Carolina Greensboro (UNCG). As she walked him out, Wray, ever the journalist, asked the young Black man, who she learned was a Greensboro native, why he had selected the state university over NCAT. A&T is a school renowned as the home of the A&T Four, four freshmen who made civil rights history when they refused to leave their counter seats at the city’s Woolworth store Feb. 1, 1960.
She relayed his response to all of us in the session: “He said he didn’t like what he had heard about our campus when he was growing up,” she said. “That people in Greensboro are wary of A&T. That there is a lot of crime around our campus — and that we have murders here every year.”
While some of her A&T Register colleagues expressed shock — and it is important to note that the campus is not a hot-bed of violent criminal activity — Wray and others weren’t surprised by the North Carolinian’s response.
“Oh, I’ve heard that before,” Wray said.
Her frustration in the face of the negative perception of the campus and its students had, in fact, informed her proposal for the Poynter College Media Project. Selected from a competitive pool of more than 60 applicants, NCAT’s proposal highlighted what student journalists perceived to be the lack of accountability by the local media for reinforcing negative stereotypes about the campus, where 80 percent of the student population identifies as Black.
We had spent the afternoon talking about ways they wanted to start their project — tracking local news coverage of A&T over time, documenting the demographics of local journalists — but the pizza delivery driver brought the bigger challenges clearly, albeit anecdotally, into focus.
Who gets to tell the stories of NCAT? Whose voices are represented in those stories? Who is listening and what do they believe? Whose interests are served by the stories that are sought out, selected and shared?
And ultimately, in our work toward the goal of practicing accountability journalism, who needs to be held accountable for sharing more representative and inclusive stories?
By the end of our first day’s session, NCAT journalists dubbed their Poynter CMP “The Black Narrative,” a powerful headline that speaks to both their vision and their deep understanding of the many ways that stories shape not just our perceptions of reality, but, via their consequences, shape reality itself.
What began as a quest to uncover media bias and shine a light around inequity began to evolve. We started our second day of training with a deeper focus on how to check our own reporting and perceptions of events as reporters as well as how to disrupt stuck stories and narratives that reinforce stereotypes and fuel frustration.
What if, instead of confrontation, student journalists focused first on conversations? How might college media share their analyses and experiences in collaboration with local media? What existing relationships might they maximize and what new ones might they develop on a path to create a Black narrative that more accurately illuminates a rich range of lived experiences? What types of media tools might they use to share news in ways that would highlight both its complexities and context?
At this point, the project feels overwhelming. We agree that doctoral theses have been formed from less ambitious projects. But NCAT is the home of the A&T Four, after all, and the student journalists in the room aren’t backing away from this challenge.
In fact, a steady stream of students file in the room for the second day of training , more than during the first day. They come straight from classes, they leave momentarily to take online quizzes. They return. And they bring friends.
Surrounded by giant Post-Its and piles of markers, we dig in deeper and start making plans: lists of sources to contact, lists of perspectives to include, lists of ways to engage students at NCAT and nearby institutions, ideas for partnerships both on campus and off.
A&T Register adviser Emily Harris, who remains a supportive presence in both sessions, offers encouragement and gentle guidance. I’m reminded of the power of having an active advocate for student media on campus who is poised to both protect and champion this above-and-beyond project throughout the year.
Co-teacher Fara Warner calls what the students are planning “participatory journalism,” a term that reflects a new approach that openly acknowledges and incorporates accountability at every step of development. Far from its old definition as a description of “citizen journalism,” this fresh way of viewing “participatory journalism” includes a deeper understanding of media’s direct and indirect impact on its consumers and producers. Based on that understanding, “participatory journalism” continually checks for bias and instinctively bends toward inclusiveness.
Through the lens of this breed of “participatory journalism,” I’m finding my own sense of the power of journalism shifting in a new and exciting way. I see these ambitious story gatherers being the change (in journalism) that they want to see in the world. As they unapologetically cast off the veil of objectivity, they can openly embrace inclusivity.
Beyond that, I see how the student journalists at NCAT reflect the values of their historic predecessors, the activists who helped define the Civil Rights Movement : the A&T Four. Through this project, they are sending a powerful message about “The Black Narrative” to their professional media peers, locally and around the world:
“We are here. We belong here. See us, hear us and yes, serve us, too.”
Editor's note: Read about the first stop in this series in Gainesville, Florida.