Blog: Higher Ed Beat

Beyond Protests: Better Ways to Cover Race Issues on Campus
Racial conflicts at colleges need deeper and more patient coverage.

Protests over statues honoring Confederate soldiers; shouting matches at presentations by white nationalist speakers; student drives to strip buildings of names honoring racist officials.

Such dramatic campus racial conflicts and controversies justifiably attract attention from reporters and the public, according to a pair of veteran education journalists, a researcher, and a college administrator who spoke on a panel at the Education Writers Association’s 2018 National Seminar.  

But the speakers urged reporters covering race issues on college campuses to dig deeper and widen their sights to generate fresher stories that also better serve the public.

“We write about white-hot controversies,” said Vimal Patel, a reporter for The Chronicle of Higher Education. “But we don’t follow up as much as we should.”

Delece Smith-Barrow of The Hechinger Report urged reporters to ask themselves, “What are we missing? What should be told that we are just not seeing?”

Patel, Smith-Barrow and the other speakers suggested four strategies reporters covering race issues on college campuses could use to produce new and more nuanced angles:

Broaden the Context

While campus-based racial incidents get a lot of attention, racism is endemic to American society, noted Kirt von Daacke, a University of Virginia professor and the co-chair of the university president’s commission on slavery and the university.

Von Daacke encouraged reporters to broaden their focus and to include off-campus perspectives.

“Don’t look at universities as ivory towers walled off from the communities around them,” he said. “We’re local microcosms of that phenomenon and that history.”

He added: “Any of these stories about slavery and racism on college campuses are ones that as soon as you start to pick at the threads, you leave the university.”

Dig for Systemic Causes for Racial Conflicts

Patel said reporters should look into the history and reasons behind their colleges’ racial challenges. A common demand from students is a more diverse faculty, for example. But, Patel said, the number of black and Latino students in doctoral programs hasn’t been growing.

As a result, some fields are experiencing bidding wars for the limited pool of people of color coming into the professoriate, he said. Smaller colleges, and those under budget constraints, can’t afford to win those bidding wars.

Focusing on the underpinnings of an issue like that can help readers get a deeper understanding, Patel said.

Keep at It

The speakers urged reporters to keep returning to campus to document how race relations play out in students’ daily lives and to build long-term relationships with students, alumni organizations, and other important players.

Maintaining sourcing on campus can be a challenge for education journalists, in part because of turnover. Every year, a significant portion of your sources graduate and leave campus behind, Patel noted.

But that’s not the only challenge. “Marginalized populations or non-majority populations oftentimes have reasons to be distrustful” of the media, he added.

The key to establishing trust with key sources, he said, is to develop relationships before big stories break.

“Those relationships really pay dividends,” he said, referring to continued contact with a student protester that resulted in a published interview that gained national attention.

Lee Gill, the chief diversity officer at Clemson University, said one way to maintain sourcing in marginalized communities is to connect with local groups, such as LGBTQ organizations, or a local NAACP chapter. 

“Students may transition, but you have people from the community that are ongoing,” Gill said.

Smith-Barrow advised reporters to keep in touch with students who become alumni, since a college’s graduates often play roles in controversies as well.

Another long-term practice that pays dividends is filing Freedom of Information Act document requests.

“Make open records requests more of a part of your daily routine,” Patel advised.

You can use major breaking events, like protests, to focus your requests, Patel said. Ask for emails or memos that could capture the fall-out among leading decision makers.

“I find it endlessly interesting how administrators communicate with each other about grappling with their racial pasts,” he said.

Highlight Solutions

In a news cycle dominated by quick-hits on racial incidents, bad news, and conflict, it can pay big dividends to “go back and figure out what sort of progress is getting made,” Patel said.

For example, Gill of Clemson University suggested that reporters look at what their local colleges are doing to improve access to and success in school by racial minorities. He highlighted his school’s Clemson’s Tiger Alliance, part of the Men of Color National Summit, which works with high school students of color and helps them during the transition to college, all the way through to graduation.

Von Daacke said many schools are turning racial conflicts and protests into teachable moments. The University of Virginia and more than 30 other colleges have joined a coalition called Universities Studying Slavery to “examine all aspects of their past” together.

The group, made up of college administrators and professors, meets to learn how to “address both historical and contemporary issues dealing with race and inequality in higher education and in university communities,” he said.

“Universities have a moment where we can lead on this,” von Daacke said. “What’s really exciting is the attempt to create real multi-institution repair initiatives.”