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April 27, 2021

When the staff at the Morgan State University Spokesman sat down last summer to brainstorm ideas for their next reporting project, they found they couldn’t ignore one of the biggest national stories of the year: the pandemic.

So they expanded upon their initial idea of covering food deserts to focus on health disparities for Black Americans. But the enormity of the subject left editor-in-chief Oyin Adedoyin feeling daunted.

“I was really intimidated when we did broaden it because it doesn’t sound like a college publication story. It is a national story,” Adedoyin said. “I was a little bit nervous about how we could tackle it and how we could localize it but still tell those poignant stories.

It quickly became clear to Adedoyin, however, that her fears were unfounded. As Black students at Maryland’s largest HBCU, the Spokesman’s reporters found it easy to generate story ideas, drawing from their own experiences. For example, at one meeting, Adedoyin challenged the staff to think about the home remedies their parents used to give them to avoid going to the doctor.

“All of us as an editorial board could just recall off the top of our heads a bunch of different little remedies — whether or not they worked, whether or not we thought they were silly — that our parents would try,” Adedoyin said. “A lot of our families wanted to try to deal with as much as they could from home before seeing the doctor, which was almost in some sense a last resort. That’s due to mistrust, and there’s a reason behind the mistrust.”

The reporters are exploring that mistrust — and more — in their series Black Health Matters, which launched in October. (The discussion about home remedies led to its own story on naturopathic care in the Black community). The series is part of Poynter’s College Media Project, which is supporting 10 student media organizations to explore a campus issue this academic year. Applications for the fall 2021 iteration of the project are now open.

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So far the Spokesman has published five stories, covering everything from the personal experiences of MSU nursing students to racism as a public health crisis. Other issues they explored included “medical racism, the contentious relationship between the Black community and hospitals, how COVID-19 has exacerbated Black health issues, and the barriers between Black students and medical school.”

The team of five reporters meet regularly to discuss stories that fall under that month’s theme, which Adedoyin picks. She said choosing a word of the month helps them narrow their focus when covering the broad topic of health. Past words have included “trust” and “program,” as in health-related programs in minority communities.

A screenshot from one of last semester’s Spokesman staff meetings.

Some of the reporters joined the team due to their interest in healthcare and their personal experiences navigating the system as Black Americans.

For instance, sports editor Tariq Turner became a certified clinical medical assistant when he was 16 and has worked in hospitals for roughly three years. He came up with the idea for his Black Health Matters story — an analysis of why there are so few Black male nurses in the field — after meeting a nursing student.

“Knowing him, I was just sort of — I don’t want to say surprised — but interested in the fact that (nursing) was his major. He didn’t really strike me as someone who would be a nursing major,” Turner said. “There’s not a lot of male nurses I would say that I know of.”

Features editor Jordan Brown also had a personal connection to the story she wrote for Black Health Matters. Her piece explores why Black women with breast cancer have a 40% higher death rate than white women with the same disease. Brown herself had lost a family member to stage four breast cancer.

“Reporting that story was very beneficial for me, not only because I got to talk to so many people who had similar experiences, but that I actually learned a lot about Black women dying of breast cancer at higher rates,” Brown said. “When my godmother had passed away, I was only 13, so I didn’t know much about breast cancer.”

Brown’s piece garnered a lot of feedback from students and families who appreciated the coverage and felt “seen,” according to Adedoyin. Brown said some readers told her they found the story very educational.

Educating readers is the ultimate goal of the Black Health Matters project, said Spokesman social media manager Jamira Newby.

“To be honest with you, a lot of this stuff wasn’t too much of a surprise because me being a Black woman, I see what happens,” Newby said. “It was stuff that I already knew. It was stuff that I want other people to know. I want other people to know that this is what happens in our community.’”

Correction: This story has been updated to correct Jordan Brown’s title. She is the features editor, not a staff writer.

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Angela Fu is a freelance reporter based in Birmingham, Ala. and a contributor to Poynter.org. She can be reached at angelafu7@gmail.com or on Twitter @angelanfu.
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