Survey: Less trust in media on historically black campuses

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Students at historically black colleges and universities have a low level of trust in the press and are more likely than students at non-HBCUs to favor restrictions on press coverage of campus protests, according to a report released this morning by the Knight Foundation and the Newseum Institute.

The report is part of a Knight-funded research program on campus free speech, and it follows an April survey on US college students’ views of their First Amendment rights. Together, the latest report says, they show that “students in diverse higher education environments in terms of size, geography, and demography are all confronting significant issues related to free expression, press freedom, and the First Amendment.”

In the new report, researchers surveyed 302 full-time HBCU students (93 percent identified their race as black or African American). Their views were compared with those of the larger national sample (3,072) in the April survey, including 357 black students at non-HBCUs. Pointing to some significant differences in their views, the report noted that “environments and backgrounds seem to…influence…[students’] views and responses to key events.”

Among other things, the report found that both HBCU students and black students at non-HBCUs believe their colleges should create a campus environment in which people are free to express all manner of ideas, even offensive ones. And, of the five freedoms covered by the First Amendment, HBCU students say (75 percent) that press freedom is the most secure. However, they don’t really trust the press.

Although 42 percent of the national sample and 39 percent of black students at non-HBCUs say they have “a great deal” or “fair amount” of trust in the press, only 28 percent of HBCU students agree. Meanwhile, they have favorable opinions of student media. They are more likely than the national sample (by 51 percent to 24 percent) to believe their student media plays a critical role in encouraging the open exchange of ideas on campus.

HBCU students also paid closer attention to the race-related protests that occurred on campuses last fall. Forty-three percent dedicated “a great deal” of attention to news about them, compared with 34 percent of black students at non-HBCUs and 25 percent of the national sample.

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Many black people distrust the American press for good reason: because it has failed in profound ways to cover blacks fully or fairly, as individuals or as a community.


Notably, too, HBCU students in the survey favor restrictions on press coverage of campus protests. They say (56 percent) student protestors should be able to prevent the press from covering their campus events, whereas the national sample (70 percent) says the press should be free to cover them—and black students at non-HBCUs (67 percent) say the same.

Basically, the surveyed HBCU students seem to be more sympathetic to the reasons protestors sometimes try to block coverage. Seventy percent of them believe protestors could justifiably deny the press access to campus events because they want to be left alone or because the press’s reporting will be unfair. Nearly as many believe protestors could justifiably prevent the press from covering their events in order to tell their own story on social media or online. Students in the national sample are divided on those ideas.

The report doesn’t offer much in the way of analysis to try to understand what the numbers mean, other than its note that “environments and backgrounds” affect how college students perceive the world around them, ultimately shaping their attitudes toward the First Amendment. I don’t have a definitive explanation, either, but it makes sense to me that HBCU students have little trust in the press and are more likely than others to favor restrictions on some coverage.

Many black people distrust the American press for good reason: because it has failed in profound ways to cover blacks fully or fairly, as individuals or as a community. Too many journalists and pundits are ahistorical in their coverage of the community, and too often black people are represented in the press only in relation to conflict or crime.

One academic study that analyzed local television news coverage found that black people rarely appeared in stories unless they had committed a crime, and another found that such coverage may contribute to racial bias among viewers by over-representing black people in crime narratives.

One of my colleagues at the University of Kansas, journalism professor Jerry Crawford, who is a national expert on HBCUs and their mass communication units, told me the representation seeds are planted early.

“Black students who consume media in secondary school don’t see themselves in the media, their everyday experiences,” Crawford said. “That can cause them and others to lose sight of who they are and even to lose their voices, because they don’t hear their voices in the media. They just see black people in stories at times of strife.” 

Crawford also said HBCUs are significant feeders to the industry: A large number of working black journalists—from straight news programs to entertainment programs—attended an HBCU. He added that HBCUs and black thought are not synonymous, nor is either institution monolithic, and so he hopes the new Knight report is not interpreted to draw overly broad conclusions about African Americans’ views about the First Amendment. 

“One thing I see in the report is the climate,” Crawford said. “You might get similar results if you asked the same questions of any minority group, not just African Americans—partly because of the climate in which they’re asked, a time when you can’t read or watch the news without coming across a story about some marginalized group, Muslims or women or refugees. That being said, I admire what the report is doing, starting a conversation about race and media and free speech.”

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Jonathan Peters is CJR’s press freedom correspondent. An attorney, he is an assistant professor of journalism at the University of Kansas, where he teaches and researches media law and policy, with an affiliate research position exploring big data and Internet governance in the KU Information & Telecommunication Technology Center. Peters has blogged on free expression for the Harvard Law & Policy Review, and he has written for Esquire, The Atlantic, Sports Illustrated, Slate, The Nation, Wired, and PBS. Follow him on Twitter @jonathanwpeters.