“Student voices, and the fact that students are not happy with the state of the university.”
I watched a fellow Howard University Bison speak for all of us so eloquently on CNN. It was March 30, 2018, and our beloved institution was being exposed via social media and local news for a new scandal: the misuse of over $400,000 in financial aid funds.
Imagine being a sophomore in college. Most people would think of classes, roommates, and all-nighters. Bearing a solemn expression on her face as she prepares to go live on air, sophomore journalism student Kesi Felton is being interviewed by CNN. Her short brown afro and simple t-shirt contrasts the news anchor’s perfectly polished hair, makeup and stark black top. She answers the anchor’s questions carefully, using her hands to emphasize points, redirecting the narrative away from the scandal and highlighting student’s concerns.
This kind of comfortability in predominantly white spaces may be related to the fact that she attends Howard University, a historically black university located in the center of Washington D.C.’s Shaw neighborhood. Howard University is known for shaping brilliant scholars of African descent such as Zora Neale Hurston, Elijah Cummings, Toni Morrison and re-affirming their unapologetically black identity, in order to be outspoken and influential members of their communities.
Kesi Felton is the girl who does it all. Her close friend Rebecca Johnson described her as one of the hardest workers at Howard. “She puts her all into everything she does,” she emphasizes. Felton is in the concert band, school newspaper, student council, various clubs, and also has her own blog. She is just one example of today’s budding journalists.
Unlike in previous generations, students pursuing a career in the newsroom don’t need an internship to begin building their brand. Garnering a following online and building credibility through social media coverage is a pathway drawn out for a new wave of journalism.
The Trump era has brought about a divide between the public and the press due to the nation’s leader being so openly vocal about his disdain for the media. Those who hope to break into the business are walking into a very testy environment, and have to explore uncharted territories in order to stand out. More seasoned professionals criticize this alternative to working up the ladder and question whether it spurs more harm to the profession as a whole.
— kf (@kesifelton) March 29, 2018
On a Thursday night, just weeks before the spring semester ends, Howard University students were seen dutifully walking the campus toting pillows, comforters, and backpacks. An onlooker might assume they are about to pull an all-nighter in the library of iLab. Instead, their destination is the administration building. Before walking up to the building, music permeates the air along with the noisy commotion of students congregating. Once inside, students have occupied all four floors of the university’s operations hub. For nine days, as many as 300 students slept there in protest of an administration that failed to attend to student’s needs. During this now historic sit-in, students described their experience as “what going to Howard is supposed to feel like.”
Howard University has a long history of students protesting against the administration. The most well-known divide between students and administration happened in 1968. The four-day long protest involved over two-thousand students sitting in the administration building. Following the protest, the university agreed to form a student judiciary committee. The most striking parallel is the student’s sentiments for the university president. The Harvard Crimson article reported students felt “Nabrit spent too much time away from the campus and neglected the “problems and issues raised by the student body.” Nabrit was reported to be in Puerto Rico when the protest started. Much of the current student body at Howard feel that university president Dr. Wayne A.I. Frederick has not made student’s concerns his top priority. The contrast between the two protest is the news coverage. The news of students in 1968 planning to sit-in was spread through word of mouth.
Felton decided to cover the day-to-day happenings of this year’s protest in the most millennial way possible: via social media.
When asked what compelled her to become involved with the protest she answered plainly, “The editor-in-chief of the Hilltop (student-run newspaper) told me something was happening in the A building and I agreed to check it out.” She even stayed when it became an overnight movement. Considering the intimate nature of the space, she began to report on the story as an insider using Instagram stories. By recognizing her unique role as a student, she seized the opportunity to narrate the story as it unfolded digitally.
Growing up just outside of Atlanta in Acworth, GA, Kesi always knew she wanted to write. According to city data, the suburb known as ‘The Lake City’ is 53 percent white. Though surrounded by mostly white counterparts, she got into a magnet program that pushed for diversity.
It also afforded Felton the opportunity to travel abroad to Europe during her junior year. Along with studying abroad, she was also a committed member of her school’s band and tennis team. During the summer months, she participated in journalism camps such as “Backpack Journalism” hosted by Kennesaw State which covered multi-platform reporting and photojournalism. Her sole experience with a black teacher was in English. Kesi recollects this experience as if first acknowledging its importance.
“She gave me the chance to get to know myself through learning my history. I began to take pride in my identity with my black history project.”
“When she was in elementary school, she practiced writing scripts. She would be anchor 1 and write out her little brother’s part as anchor 2,” her mom, Camille Felton, recalls about her first signs of interest in journalism. Camille also works at CNN, hence her air of calm during her interview. “I basically grew up at CNN’s Atlanta headquarters so the environment wasn’t that much different,” Kesi remarked. As a child, she was very outgoing and involved in a number of activities by her own will. This parallels with her current college lifestyle. Her mom said, “I don’t recall her quitting anything. If she did, we’d have her sit down and discuss why she felt the need to quit, and how it would benefit her.”
Journalism student. Blogger. Awkward black girl. Howard University ‘20.
This is what Felton’s Instagram bio reads. Her account also has highlights of a NYC media trip, her student protest coverage, bible scriptures, a student council campaign, and her blog posts. Her collage of pictures are all adherent with her brand theme of sunflower yellow. Her Instagram story that chronicled the student sit-in included images and footage from the inside of the administration building. An image of poster boards and a girl crouched on the floor writing on one is captioned, “As we get settled in for the night, students have started to make posters with demands and other protest slogans.” Close friend and fellow journalism student Rebecca Johnson made sure to note Felton’s dedication to her brand. “During the sit-in, she was reporting from the inside. She gave the facts and reported with such integrity. It even showed when she was on CNN. She represented the story well.”
The news of the 2018 protest began with the #StudentPowerHU tweets circulating on Twitter. The burgeoning story caught the attention of local news outlets. This is not uncommon, considering a Pew Research study found that 62 percent of journalists draw news from trusted sources on Twitter or Facebook, while 64 percent rely on well-known blogs as a source of story ideas.
Journalism professor Mark Beckford criticizes social media’s role in journalism. “It inadvertently creates a problem for both journalists and consumers of news. People put information on the Internet that isn’t true so journalists have to be fact checkers and consumers have to wade through all this information that hasn’t always been proven as valid.”
In a Santa Clara University article by Kurt Wagner, he states social media hasn’t just changed how journalists find stories. “It’s also changed the way we create news,” he says. Covering these stories with an online profile allow journalists like Kesi, the opportunity to build a following for their personal brand, rather than just the publication. Wagner writes, “As a journalist, having a social profile allows readers to put a face to a name, and lets them get to know you on a more personal level. The hope is that this following will enjoy your work, not just the work of your publication, and then follow you as you move along in your career.” Though the field of journalism is infamously competitive, opportunities to build credibility online can spur a budding journalist’s career.
Student leader and member of HU Resist, Alexis McKinney reflected back on the nine-day protest and tweeted: “When you take away the struggle for basic necessities within a Black space, this is what happens- ingenuity, creativity, and community. And that says more about what we need as a people than anything I’ve read or studied about during my time at Howard.”
It is my hope that black student journalists continue to hone these skills so that they can accurately tell our stories, and do so in a way that is groundbreaking.