November 20, 2017

Invisible to the Media | From the Bell Tower

By Steven Bell, Associate University Librarian, Temple University, Philadelphia, PA

A bottom-up approach to sharing what we do, says Steven Bell, might help stimulate better mainstream coverage.

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Steven Bell, From the Bell Tower

I read a print newspaper and watch the national news on television every day, which probably dates me. What was once a routine for gathering news and information is rapidly disappearing in the digital age.

I recall one evening when I got particularly excited during the rundown of the evening’s stories at the start of the national news broadcast. There was going to be a feature story on higher education—something about increasing tuition and financial challenges. While I was sure the 120-second story would add little to what I already knew, the fact that a major media source was covering higher education was highly satisfying. It also struck me how rare it is to see such reports on national news telecasts, a feeling now confirmed by a new report.

Shockingly low coverage
The new report, titled Invisible: 1.4 Percent Coverage for Education Is Not Enough, is available from the Brookings Institute. I was rather shocked when I read the evidence of just how little coverage the national mainstream media devotes to education in general. Here is a significant finding:

Yet despite the importance of media coverage for public understanding of education, news reporting on schools is scant. As we note in this report, there is virtually no national coverage of education. During the first nine months of 2009, only 1.4 percent of national news coverage from television, newspapers, news Web sites, and radio dealt with education. This paucity of coverage is not unique to 2009. In 2008, only 0.7 percent of national news coverage involved education, while 1.0 percent did so in 2007. This makes it difficult for the public to follow the issues at stake in our education debates and to understand how to improve school performance.

How well does higher education fare? Not well. According to the report, of all media coverage of education, only 12.5% concerns four-year colleges and only 14.5% concerns universities. Community colleges, which enroll more than half of those in higher education, is nearly nonexistent in the media; only 2.9% of all education coverage is devoted to two-year institutions. In fact, in the latter half of 2009 a large portion of what you did hear in the media about community colleges had something to do with a new television show situated in one.

What the media do have to say
Ask any of your friends who work in fields other than higher education what they heard about it in the media lately, and chances are they’ll say something about skyrocketing tuition. For the public, higher education is reduced to a one-track story.

When the media did cover education in 2009, only two topics received considerable attention. You can probably guess what they were. Yes, given the economic crisis of 2009, the majority of the coverage focused on finance and budget cutbacks. The next most reported topic was the H1N1 flu. These topics are certainly of interest, but an important issue such as retention and graduation rates got virtually no coverage.

Compiling the Kept-Up Academic Librarian blog has no doubt skewed my perception of media coverage of higher education. The blog is sustainable because there is always a steady stream of news about higher education, or so it seems. However, the vast majority of the news comes from online news sources, some of which would fall outside the mainstream media.

According to the study, newspapers provide the most coverage of education. Network news not only provided less coverage but tended to concentrate its coverage on fewer topics. For example, stories about H1N1 account for nearly 20% of network news coverage but only 4% of newspaper coverage. A topic such as admissions, which accounted for nearly 5% of newspaper coverage, was less than 1% of the network news coverage. So even though it’s relatively easy on any given day to come up with a half-dozen or so higher education stories from mostly local newspaper and online sources, it’s a pittance in the big picture of all the national news.

A bottom-up response
However, it’s simply the nature of the mainstream media to cover what’s sensational or immediately of concern to the masses. Why should we expect to see a story in the mainstream media about faculty using twitter in classrooms? That’s why we read the Chronicle and Inside Higher Ed.

Still, it would be nice to occasionally see a story on the national network news about some of the many interesting developments in the field of higher education, especially at community colleges.

Perhaps something simple each of us can do is to start sharing more news about higher education within our own circles of influence. If the public hears little about higher education in the mainstream media, let’s use our social network tools to spread the news. In fact, one of the Brookings report recommendations is to stimulate a “bottom-up” approach to disseminating news through citizen journalists. With their skill set for gathering and disseminating information, academic librarians could contribute quite effectively to the effort.

Steven Bell is Associate University Librarian, Temple University, Philadelphia, PA.  For more from Steven visit his blogs, Kept-Up Academic Librarian, ACRLog and Designing Better Libraries or visit his web site.

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