Expert Commentary

Covering minority communities: Lessons I learned from my HBCU investigation

Journalist's Resource's managing editor, Denise-Marie Ordway, looks back at how she could have improved her coverage of college hazing and other problems at a Florida HBCU.

HBCU historically black college FAMU Pulitzer Denise-Marie Ordway
Florida A&M University marching band, 2014. (U.S. Army/Sgt. John L. Carkeet IV)

Several months ago, The Grade, an online publication aimed at improving education journalism, asked me to write about the lessons I learned over the years I spent investigating the 2011 hazing death of a Florida A&M University drum major and its aftermath. In hopes of helping other journalists, I took a look back at some of the things I should have done differently to make the news series stronger and more impactful.

While the resulting piece focuses on historically black colleges and universities, commonly referred to as HBCUs, my advice applies to covering minority communities and publicly funded institutions more broadly.

Some of the pointers I offer could be particularly helpful to news outlets reporting on the coronavirus, especially its effect on minority groups and college campuses.


An education reporter takes a hard look at her much-admired work writing about a historically black university — and finds much that could be have been improved.

The accolades for my multiyear investigative series on the hazing death of Florida A&M University (FAMU) drum major Robert Champion were a journalist’s dream.

The series was praised for its aggressive coverage of violent hazing rituals within the FAMU marching band, led to the forced resignation of the university’s president, and was a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize.

Not only that, the series I led at the Orlando Sentinel showed that top university leaders were unwilling or unable to stop the violence and revealed a range of financial and academic problems. The incoming president of the Florida senate called for a joint legislative review and the school’s accrediting agency placed it on probation for a year.

So what possibly could be wrong with such hard-hitting, award-winning education journalism?

I look back at that series and realize I could have done much more.

I should have helped readers better understand the role hazing has long played at historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) nationwide.

I should have looked into programs that had successfully reduced or eliminated hazing at other institutions to help FAMU find potential solutions to the problem.

And I should have pursued additional angles to spotlight how the school’s admissions practices and shortage of academic supports were setting up students for failure.

Many of the students in the series were low-income and the first in their families to go to college. I was also a first-generation college student and I’m keenly aware of how much higher education can shift a person’s life trajectory.

Two years after the Pulitzer announcement in 2013, I took a job helping to run a journalism project at Harvard University and started studying HBCUs as part of a master’s degree program in higher education.

After a couple years of poring over history books and research articles, it became obvious I had left out important pieces of the story, and I wasn’t alone in that lapse. Many news outlets largely ignore HBCUs — or cover them superficially — and, hence, much of the public likely knows little about these colleges.

I regret that I flubbed a rare opportunity to educate the country about HBCUs beyond the usual negative news headlines.

History of HBCUs — and hazing 

Looking back, I should have taken time to learn about the history of HBCUs and how that history had influenced FAMU’s admissions policies and campus culture.

HBCUs were created to serve black students when racial segregation was legal and, initially, one of their main aims was to fill in gaps in black students’ educations. Across the decades, they accepted students other colleges would not take.

But I knew little about that background when I was reporting the series. Neither I nor the three reporters who worked with me on the series had attended an HBCU. And before FAMU drum major Robert Champion died during a hazing ritual in Orlando, I had rarely covered HBCUs. Yet I was a higher education reporter in the South, where most are located.

I also had no idea hazing was even a tradition in marching bands. I was stunned to learn that a member of FAMU’s Marching 100 had died during a beating just hours after performing at the annual Florida Classic football game. I had written about fraternity hazing and injuries arising from excessive drinking. I had heard about hazing among athletes featuring drunkenness and nudity.

But I didn’t grasp what a big deal marching bands — and hazing — were at black colleges until I watched videos of HBCU band competitions on YouTube and read online discussions among HBCU alumni. Showmanship and pageantry are hallmarks of HBCU marching bands and the reason why halftime performances can be as big a draw as the football game. Drum majors like Champion, I discovered, play a particularly prominent role.

When I was on campus at FAMU, I focused on what the administration was doing — ­and not doing. I was attending meetings, interviewing employees and students, fighting for public records, and trying to piece together how much administrators and campus police knew about hazing within the band and why they did not do more to stop it. I should have spent more time with students to better understand the perspective of the young men and women who stayed in the band despite the beatings, injuries, and insults.

Beneath the surface, I had several things in common with FAMU band members who endured the hazing. I had been bullied in school, but never reported it. I knew what it was like to be physically hurt by someone in a group and to keep quiet about it because, otherwise, I’d be ostracized. Like a number of these students, I had sacrificed a lot to get to college.

Regrettably, I didn’t spend much time exploring that angle. I think it was because I was scrambling to keep up with all the developments in the story, always worried about missing something or getting scooped because Champion’s death and the aftermath had become a big, national story.

In one article in the series, I examined the school’s practice of enrolling students who failed to meet basic admissions criteria set for all Florida public universities. At one point, more than half of FAMU undergraduates were admitted even though they were not officially ready — they did not take enough math in high school, for example, or their grades or SAT scores fell short of the minimum cutoff. I wrote the piece to hold the school accountable, pointing out how this practice potentially hurt students and likely was a reason for FAMU’s low four-year graduation rate. It was just 12% at the time.

But there was a side to the story that I missed: why HBCUs were created in the first place.

These schools, in fact, were an access point to higher education for generations of black students who, otherwise, would not have been able to go to college. Decades ago, many HBCUs were open-access institutions, taking any student who wanted to learn. Most began by offering high school coursework as a necessity and evolved, over time, into fully college-level institutions, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

Knowing more of that history would have allowed me to explain to readers why FAMU — for better or worse — had made a habit of enrolling large numbers of students who were considered unprepared for college-level work. I should have asked many more questions about the kinds of academic support FAMU provided its students, especially first-generation students. I needed to ask questions like these:

  • What are the administration, the faculty, and student organizations doing to help students who don’t meet basic enrollment requirements transition from high school to college, starting their first semester of freshman year?
  • What other academic supports does FAMU offer across academic years for students who did not meet basic admissions requirements when they started classes? How does the university know it’s reaching all students who need help? How and how often are administrators assessing whether these various efforts are effective?
  • What are FAMU employees and student leaders doing to support students and encourage them to stay in school and prepare for graduate-level studies?

Incorporating academic research 

At the time I reported this series, I did not read academic journals. I was not sure where to find the best research on higher education topics. And I did not know how to tell a high-quality study from a questionable one. I learned those things in graduate school, after leaving the newsroom.

While working on my master’s degree, I read a lot of published research on the dangers of college hazing, HBCU funding, and HBCU leadership. Research would have helped me explain the conditions at many colleges that can create a campus culture that allows — and even encourages — violent hazing. It would have helped me think more critically about hazing’s role in black college culture specifically.

Research also would have revealed how other colleges had approached their hazing problems and which anti-hazing efforts, if any, were effective.

To find high-quality research, I should have:

In my current position at Journalist’s Resource, a project of Harvard’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy, part of my job is training reporters how to find and use research. The JR team has created a number of tip sheets to help. 

Highlighting solutions

I wish, too, that I had spent reporting time highlighting possible solutions. It would have been a great way to move the story forward. As organizers at the Solutions Journalism Network assert, solutions-focused coverage sharpens news coverage.

“Covering creative problem-solving activity will help beat reporters add depth, contrast and variety to their work, and may reveal hidden assumptions or blind spots,” the organization explains on its website.

If I had interviewed administrators at other colleges about their efforts to combat hazing, I could have spotlighted the range of ways higher education institutions were trying to prevent and confront the issue.

I should have compared HBCUs’ responses to hazing with those of predominantly white schools, including Florida State University, a public university located in the same city that had won an award for its hazing prevention efforts.

After Champion’s death, FAMU created a website where students could learn about hazing, and a hotline to report hazing incidents. Solutions-oriented research also would have helped me explain whether FAMU’s new efforts would succeed.

Hopefully, research also would have offered insights into why so many talented young people, across multiple generations and from different socioeconomic backgrounds, volunteered to be hurt and humiliated to be part of the band.

I was embarrassed when I realized what I overlooked in my coverage of FAMU, but I am still proud of the series.

I wanted to make positive changes that benefited students. I did that.


This image was obtained from the Flickr account of the U.S. Army Reserve and is being used under a Creative Commons license. No changes were made.

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