A Memphis high school graduate gets accepted to 213 schools, earns more than $10 million in scholarship offers, and commits to Tennessee State University. Fayetteville State University students are headed to Harvard University, Cornell University, and as far away as China for internships in biochemistry and medical science.
Florida A&M University students earn a perfect passage rate in occupational therapy certification, with all 19 of the graduates passing the exam on their first attempt.
These aren’t blips on the HBCU success radar. These storylines emerge from HBCUs across the country all the time. So why don’t more people, especially black people, hear about them?
It depends on how we define “hear about.” If schools and supporters define hearing about HBCU success by what they read, hear from friends or see on Facebook, there’s no shortage of information on what the campuses are doing, and how well they are doing it.
But technology and culture frequently clash in determining what information we consider valuable, and powerful enough to make us take action, even action as simple as reading a full article.
What is Coverage and Why Don’t HBCUs Get More of It?
If “hear about” is defined as “did you hear about what happened at…” meaning something super newsworthy or extraordinary, then we don’t hear about that. Because we don’t have the proper context for “extraordinary” when it comes to HBCUs.
A federal lawsuit filed and won by alumni from Maryland’s four historically black colleges and universities is extraordinary, but we’re not talking about it because few people understand it’s context as the next generation of “Brown v. Board of Education.” And few people understand it because unlike Brown v. Board, it has not beeen made a part of daily news ritual in Maryland’s mainstream media outlets, and therefore doesn’t make national news.
Cheyney University, widely regarded as the first HBCU in the country, is on the verge of closing. We probably won’t hear about it until the school formally announces that it is going to actually close its doors – partly because its struggles aren’t a part of the daily news cycle in Pennsylvania.
Traditional media research suggests that news media innately informs the amount of knowledge and scope of opinion we take on a give issue. Social media has turned that research on its head, because consumers now inform the media, which in turn feeds back to consumers the kind of information we already believe, or want to affirm for ourselves.
Which leads to the second point.
We Don’t Read, But What We Share Drives the Next Item We Won’t Read
That’s not the universal, work out trope about black folks not caring to read; it’s the data-proven point that two out of every three users who see a headline on social media that they agree with are likely to share it without reading it. From Forbes:
IFLScience.com recently conducted a similar experiment, publishing an article titled Marijuana Contains “Alien DNA” From Outside Of Our Solar System, NASA Confirms. The article, as of now, has over 141,000 shares, and it isn’t about marijuana or alien DNA at all – it’s an experiment to see how many shares it could attract with an outrageous headline alone. IFLScience states within the post that “We here at IFLS noticed long ago that many of our followers will happily like, share, and offer an opinion on an article – all without ever reading it.”
The more content we share without reading, the more pressure it puts on this and other outlets to churn out headlines that are likely to get more shares, which hopefully leads to actual clickthroughs and reading, which leads to advertising, which leads to sites remaining active for publishing.
So what are the kinds of stories we’ll actually click through to read?
We Love Scandal
Here’s a view of the most popular stories on the HBCU Digest over the last year.
The vast majority of the top rated stories could be classified as ‘negative,’ concerning violence, executive turnover, and Donald Trump drama. If this is what attracts the most clicks, what is the incentive for the Digest, or any outlet, to publish otherwise?
There is none. Even in Russia. From Quartz:
In what turned out to be a rather disheartening social experiment, the Russian news site City Reporter only reported good news to its readers for an entire day.
The site brought positive news stories to the front of its pages and found any and all silver linings in negative stories (“No disruption on the roads despite snow,” for example). The result was a smorgasbord of sunshine, lollipops, and rainbows—that absolutely no one wanted to read. The City Reporter lost two-thirds of its normal readership that day, according to a post by one of the editors on Facebook.
So, even as HBCUs generate positive headlines about student success, philanthropic gains, research breakthroughs, industrial value and community necessity, they will continue to suffer having a lack of say over their own public narrative; mostly because we don’t take the time to read about what our schools actually do well and to help shape the way others think about our institutions.