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Collaborative project tackles the challenges of reporting across racial and economic divides

Selma, Alabama. The Edmund Pettus Bridge. The words conjure up the worst images of the civil rights battles of the 60s.

Selma project: students working together

But March 7, 1965, Bloody Sunday, when dozens of blacks were beaten, and 17 hospitalized as they marched into Dallas County in support of voting rights, was also a turning point in the crusade, bringing worldwide attention to the campaign that spawned passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

Fifty years after that march, journalism students from Morgan State University – an urban, historically black university – joined peers from West Virginia University – a predominantly white university in a rural state – to create Bridging Selma, a unique social justice reporting project to help promote a critically needed conversation about race in America.

Selma project: students working togetherWith Selma as their classroom, and guided by faculty from both schools, the students used text, photos and video to tell revealing stories of the town’s past and present and to probe the community’s current economic hardships and hopes for revitalization.

For many of these students it was their first time in a southern town steeped in the conflicting imagery of Confederate tradition and daunting symbols of the civil rights struggle.

“Within a half-hour of arriving in Selma, as students stood on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, they were swept up in covering a protest,” said Professor Karen Houppert, who led the Morgan State team.

“Activists were speaking out against a Civil War re-enactment going on a mile away, an annual gathering that drew hundreds to Selma a month after Bloody Sunday commemorative activities – but this time, celebrating the confederate legacy and raising money to replace a stolen bust of a Selma Confederate General and prominent Ku Klux Klansman, oddly prescient in light of the murders in Charleston, South Carolina, two months later.

“Students did short, multimedia profiles of the people of Selma as a way of investigating the legacy of the Voting Rights Act, exploring issues of race, economic disparity, educational inequality, community development and history through the eyes of Selma residents who continue to struggle with these entrenched problems 50 years after that historic march.”

Through multimedia storytelling and individual narrative, “Bridging Selma” enabled students to learn about each other’s differences as well as their commonality while reporting stories that confront issues of race and social equity. These stories, and their personal interaction, taught them how to become part of this nation’s larger dialogue on race.

Selma project: students working together

In the reports they produced, students experimented with emerging technology to bring new tools to the challenges of reporting on racial divides. WVU Associate Professor Joel Beeson and Morgan State student Emily Pelland experimented with virtual reality to explore perspective and the role of empathy in immersive storytelling. They produced an app called “Fractured Tour” that works with VR headsets, such as Google Cardboard and Samsung VR Gear, to immerse the viewer in a virtual tour of stories.

“We want our students to take ownership of their unique perspectives on race as journalists by taking them out of their comfort zone,” said Beeson, who led the WVU team. “Recent events have disrupted conventional ways of doing journalism and highlighted the critical need for a new dialogue on race relations in America. This effort can help educate a new generation of social justice journalists who have the opportunity to alter the direction of the race conversation in America.”

The vision for the project came from DeWayne Wickham, dean of the School of Global Journalism and Communication at Morgan State, a historically black college in Baltimore, Maryland.

Selma project: students working togetherHis goal was to bring students and faculty together from both schools to work on creating shared curricula focused on knowledge-based reporting that challenge conventional newsgathering practices.

“I wanted our students to probe the soft underbelly of the racial and social inequities that still haunt this nation. And I think the work they did in Selma was enriched by our partnership with West Virginia University,” Wickham said.

“This collaboration will make our students better journalists and – because of the relationships they developed with the students from West Virginia University – better able to navigate America’s racial divide.”

“Both WVU and Morgan State are situated in regions of the country that continue to face major challenges,” said Maryanne Reed, dean of the WVU Reed College of Media and interim dean of the WVU Eberly College of Arts and Sciences. “Moving forward, Dean Wickham and I are hoping to develop an ongoing program that brings students from both colleges together on meaningful journalism projects that stimulate dialogue and help drive solutions to the issues dividing our communities.”

The students’ work is online at and includes text, photo and multimedia stories, as well as the VR experiment exploring Selma’s landmark history and the community’s continuing divides. The “Fractured Tour” VR app can also be downloaded through Google Play.

See the official release at WVU Today.