Miss Black USA: A Crowning Achievement in Reversing the American Pageant Stereotype

Multimedia story by Dustin Stout

There she is: naturally beautiful, rich with a cultural heritage, uniquely herself and African American.

Miss Black USA is a scholarship pageant founded in 1986 strictly for African American women. The first of its kind, Miss Black USA is working to counteract what has become the color-limiting norm in American beauty pageants.

White wins – that’s the expectation society has come to accept.

In Tennessee, the highly regarded Miss America organization has never crowned an African American woman in its more than 90-year history, and Karen Arrington, founder and CEO of Miss Black USA, thinks that’s a statistic worth noting.

A self-proclaimed “champion for women,” Arrington calls the Miss America phenomenon of white winners “suffocating to women of color.”

“There are many talented, intelligent and beautiful young African American women who would make outstanding representatives in the Miss Tennessee America system,” Arrington said. “Unfortunately, in mainstream pageants, you are competing in a world where only a certain aesthetic is considered beautiful.”

That’s why she founded the Miss Black USA organization.

“In a black pageant, you can celebrate your unique differences and natural beauty.  You can wear your hair short, long, natural, in locks or twisted. You can be yourself,” Arrington said.

Belmont University junior Natalie Newbill, the Miss Black USA representative for Tennessee, mentions Miss Black USA gives young African American girls – especially ones in Tennessee – hope.

“The Miss Black USA organization gives the African American community a future,” said Newbill. “It gives us a great deal of confidence to go out and really attack anything. We’re making a difference.”

Newbill considers the lack of diversity at the Miss Tennessee America level a disservice to young African American girls watching.

“I think young African American girls not seeing anyone who looks like them in pageants is devastating,” she said. “It makes young girls feel like it’s something they can’t achieve.”

A third independent pageant system, the Miss USA organization, has named African American winners in Tennessee, but those winners have all been fair-skinned.

Newbill doesn’t believe that’s significant. To her, it’s still progress.

“I think that has a great deal to do with confidence levels. I don’t believe other pageants organizations choose their winners based on color,” she said.

But Arrington believes Miss Black USA gives all types of African American women a chance to reward themselves as they are, instead of assimilating to the majority.

“Growing up, I didn’t see women in magazines or mainstream media who looked like me,” Arrington said. “At Miss Black USA every contestant defines her own standard of beauty. We celebrate our curves. We celebrate our dark complexion. We celebrate our natural beauty and we celebrate our rich cultural heritage and experience.”

She’s also quick to note this: Miss Black USA is more than a pageant. It’s a movement, she says.

“We think it’s a post-racial era, but there are still parts of the country where African American women are not respected or appreciated,” Arrington said. “The movement is a step towards erasing the stereotypes and shaping the future.”

To date, Miss Black USA has given more than $300,000 in scholarships to African American women.


Getting Back to Basics: Social Media and Accuracy

Amanda Short, Audrey Schaulat, Christian Rich and Jen Todd were all contributors to this story. 

In the media, if you’re not first, you’re last.

Unless, of course, you’re JUST PLAIN WRONG…

The issue:

Journalism is available and ready for anyone, by anyone in unprecedented ways, particularly through consumer-fed social media platforms.  A 2010 CNN study showed that 43 percent of people used social media to share news online.  Users can access their information instantly through the platforms, but recent events have proven the unreliability of the social platforms as a viable source for information.

How has this affected journalism?

Penn State football coach Joe Paterno’s death is the most recent example of news organizations and the public taking news found on social media at face value.  Craig Silverman of the Poynter Institute argues with regards to Paterno, “There’s no glory in being first.

Unreliable news surfacing online is nothing new, as information has been misused since the rise of organizations such as Wikipedia.  John Seigenthaler, a nationally acclaimed journalist and assistant to Attny. Gen. Robert F. Kennedy, was linked to the deaths of Robert and John F. Kennedy on the website by an anonymous writer.

The incident raised questions as to the reliability of user-generated sites.  In an editorial written in USA Today, Seigenthaler said,

“And so we live in a universe of new media with phenomenal opportunities for worldwide communications and research — but populated by volunteer vandals with poison-pen intellects. Congress has enabled them and protects them.”

Social media spurs this process further.  Death reports are common on Twitter: NewsOne came up with its top 11 fake deaths on twitter in 2011.  Ronnie Ramos of Indiana University’s journalism program cites multiple issues within the Indianapolis Colts football organization’s handling of the firing of coach Jim Caldwell.

What can be done to maintain credibility?

Media and consumers face reliability issues daily, and they are not going away anytime soon.  However, Geneva Overholser of the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard says in “What is Journalism’s Place in Social Mediavalue-focused journalism will be the key for maintaining its integrity.

Social media are not so much mere tools as they are the ocean we’re going to be swimming in—at least until the next chapter of the digital revolution comes along,” she said. “What needs our attention is how we’re going to play roles that bring journalistic values into this vast social media territory.”

Click to view our live-blogging of John Seigenthaler’s Belmont visit.  Using Cover it Live, we were able to aggregate tweets, quotes and wisdom from an amazing journalist.


Thank you for taking the time to view this presentation. All feedback is welcomed and appreciated.

Low-cost diplomas may have a higher price to pay

Dustin Stout, Carrie Chalker, Kayla Becker and Tara Knott contributed to this multimedia story.

If a simple little lie could get you your dream job, would you tell it?

The answer to that question has made educational fraud into a billion-dollar business. Diploma mills are everywhere, and like a game of global Whac-A-Mole, as soon as you find one, it disappears and pops up somewhere else.

What’s a diploma mill?

Steven Reed, former director of postsecondary education for the Tennessee Higher Education Commission, said diploma mills provide “no educational content for a credential.  That’s the simplest definition.”

Clients pay these mills a fee and receive a degree in return.  And the more you pay, the better your degree – many mills now offer masters’ and doctoral degrees.  For an additional charge, some will even provide you with a false transcript.

But why would anybody purchase a fake degree?

Imagine this.  You dropped out of high school to work at your family’s business and have been making good money, but with the economy in shambles, you have to close.

“You might have even legitimately tried to go back and get your GED and not passed.  But you need to feed your kids,” Reed said.  “What do you do? Spend a little money, get a diploma, get a job.”

For this reason, most customers of diploma mills don’t see themselves as victims – that is, until they get caught using a phony degree and are charged with fraud.   The diploma mills generally escape all responsibility because of four little words on their website: “For entertainment purposes only.”  This allows the mill to claim they were just providing the customer with a service and had no idea it would be used for illegal activities.

What is the government doing to stop diploma mills?

Diploma mills one of the hardest criminal industries to track because most people who purchase their products know what they’re getting into.

“They’re not walking in blind. They know that they’re paying a fee, and that fee means no educational content and you give me my credential,” Reed said.

But on occasion, an unknowing consumer might be browsing the web for a way to earn an online degree and stumble into the hands of a diploma mill.  And when that consumer realizes they’ve been duped, Reed said, that’s when the government can hunt the mill down.

Many mills hide behind a religious disguise, so some states, including Tennessee, have laws that allow the government to get involved with a religious school because that school is providing a secular degree to its students.

Still, catching and closing a mill isn’t enough – the biggest problem is keeping it closed.

“If [diploma mills] get caught, they just simply shut down and they move somewhere else. It’s a game for them, in a way,” said Reed. “They know the laws, and they probably know them even better than some of the state administrators.”

To shut them down for good, he said, “it really takes some folks that are constantly in the game keeping up with it.”

John Seigenthaler at Belmont: We’re Covering It Live!

Join our live conversation on John Seigenthaler–award-winning journalist, First Amendment founder and proponent of American rights and values. He will be sharing his unique story with our Practicum II class tomorrow at 11am at Belmont University.

Covered by Christian Rich, Audrey Schaulat, Amanda Short and Jen Todd

Fusion Center links law enforcement in TN

(Story by Autumn Allison, Tia Runion, Joe Shelby, Lindsey Driver)

After answering a knock on the door, a mother is beaten and stabbed, and her 4-day-old infant has been kidnapped.

In September 2009, this is the situation Nashville Metro Police Department and soon the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation found themselves in.

Tammy Silas, an Alabama resident, posed as an immigration official in order to gain access to the child, then fled after assaulting the mother.For three days, TBI agents and its Fusion Center, along with FBI analysts, funneled the various tips on Silas’ whereabouts leading to her arrest and the child’s safe return.

Crimes like this have become increasingly easier to solve thanks to the Fusion Center.

Open and functioning since 2007, the Fusion Center is an information sharing center that brings together information from local agencies to form an “analytic resource.” Statistics from campus police units are included in this wealth of information in compliance with the 1989 College and University Security and Information Act.

The idea for Fusion Centers was originally born out of the aftermath of 9/11, but Tennessee’s center was developed more as a better inter-agency communication system.
The Director of Homeland Security approached me in 2006-2007  about creating a Fusion Center here in Tennessee. I said we needed to come up with “a concept that can help local law enforcement with all crimes: burglaries murders, rapes, anything,” said TBI Director, Mark Gwyn.
Vanderbilt and Middle Tennessee State University are two Tennessee campuses with fully functioning law enforcement agencies, recognized by both county and city units.
Based on information from the Census Bureau, Tennessee violent crime rates have decreased. In 2008, the total of  of violent crimes was 721.6 and was reduced to 666.0 in 2009.

This is in line with national trends that show violent crimes have been decreasing since the late 90s according to the National Crime Victimization Survey.

According to TBI records, from 2009-2010, reported offenses decreased 4.6% on Tennessee college campuses.

Since Belmont started its crime prevention program, campus violence has slightly decreased from past years, Belmont Investigations and Special Initiatives Major Renee Albracht said.

Every month, Nashville’s Metro Police Department hosts crime stoppers meetings to discuss crime trends among local colleges, universities, police departments and hospitals.

“If some thing’s happening here, it’s most likely happening at Vanderbilt or Lipscomb as well,” Albracht said. “We’ve been able to solve a lot of crimes by working together.”
Though Vanderbilt and MTSU police could not be reached for comment, the collaborative nature of the Fusion Center allows campus police to communicate with the larger law enforcement community to prevent crime.
The charts below show the most current crime rates for Belmont University and Vanderbilt University. 

The past, present and future of media



Gene Policinski sat down with Collier Roberts, Amanda Stravinsky, Grace Thomas and Elise Tweston to talk about multimedia and how journalists can keep up with the ever-changing Internet.

The Evolution of The Internet: For better or for worse?

By: Collier Roberts

             A pioneer, by definition, is a person among the first to develop or be the first to use or apply a new method or area of knowledge.

Gene Policinski, a founding editor of USA Today, and now vice president of the First Amendment Center, has become a pioneer of sorts, with what he calls his “Grand Theory of the Internet,” educating journalists all around the world of the evolution of internet as it relates to journalism, for better or for worse.

“The Internet has come from being a toy, to a tool, to a necessity,” Policinski said.

This is his grand theory of the Internet.

With the evolution of the Internet, from its birth until now, new technology has now allowed the consumer to become the editor. But with that, as Policinski explains it, comes a push and a pull.

“I love the fact that I can make judgments about what I want to read at any given moment, and get it when I want it,” said Policinski. “But I also expect out there to be a professional who will make a decision that I need to know this. I have never been so well connected and over informed.”

Since the Internet has gone from being a toy, to a tool, to a necessity, somewhere in the mix some discipline has been lacking. Because the Internet is heavily relied upon in society, consumers have become overwhelmed, according to Policinski.

“We are overwhelmed with the tools and we’re overwhelmed with the reach and the ability to put it out there and we’re not making enough decisions about what we’re putting out there,” said Policinski.

So has this evolution of the Internet in the eyes of journalists been for the better or for the worse?

Policinski could argue for both.

Since the rapid growth of the Internet, people have more access to information than ever before. The consumer, can now become in the editor in the sense that you can choose what you want to see, read or hear at any given time.

But since technology has come this far, therein lies the issue of credibility. All media outlets are looking to have their information out first, and because of the way the Internet has developed, they are able to do that, but is it always correct or even newsworthy?

Policinski does believe that there is hope for the way a journalist can thrive in this age of rapid Internet growth.

“Due to the growing number of critics, credibility is the only thing we have left. Credibility is what we have to market, to bring to the news report and that is everything.”

Policinski gave three ideas in order for journalists to gain the trust of the viewers and readers back during the age of necessity of the Internet.

“Get it right. Be accurate, timely, and consistent with a follow up,” said Policinski. “If you do these things, you will be in good shape.”

Multimedia Madness Continues

Hello One and All,
Journalism students at Belmont University are being dropped in a vat of multimedia madness once again. They are charged with identifying stories, sources, stakeholders and ways to tell compelling multimedia stories. They may need your help from time to time, so please feel free to chime in.

Dr. Syb