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National CrossTalk
Spring 1999 National Center for Public Policy & Higher Education
News Editorial Other Voices Interview

2 of 2 Stories

Press Release Journalism
Higher education reporting is not tough enough

By Jon Marcus

Jon Marcus  
WHEN COLLEGES AND UNIVERSITIES finally responded last fall to the decade of complaints about their escalating costs, it wasn't by explaining why tuition has consistently increased at double the rate of inflation or by outlining the measures they were taking to save money.

No, the higher education honchos, in their wisdom, launched a campaign to explain how, with the right combination of loans and savings, a family could still afford the $120,000-plus price of an undergraduate degree from a private, four-year college or university.

This could, of course, be seen as an outrageously condescending tactic serving only to prove the widely held belief that academia remains completely out of touch with an increasingly hostile public. But I see it as a commentary on education journalism.

After all, the colleges figured they could get away with it. And in many newspapers, magazines, television broadcasts and wire services, they did. That's because American journalists in general -- and education writers in particular -- have become unquestioning stenographers whose reporting, to twist an old cliche, is 24 hours wide and ten seconds deep.

Most Americans would probably agree that journalism is in crisis, an intrusive and celebrity-centric perversion of an age when ink-stained wretches worked to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. Where I depart is to suggest that higher education coverage in particular should be more, not less, questioning and critical. In other words, higher education coverage leaves a lot to be desired not because it's too tough, but because it isn't tough enough.

Many editors seem to read "education beat" as "training ground for new reporters." Few people want the job, and most get out of it before they learn the difference between FTE and headcount, with the connivance of news organizations that pay too little attention to the topic. The education beat has an indisputably high turnover rate -- even in New England, where higher education is a major industry.

And make no mistake: Higher education is an industry. It is no coincidence that some of the best higher education coverage in New England and elsewhere appears in business publications. As much as colleges and universities resist the idea that they offer a consumer product, the ones that do well on those annual magazine rankings send out reprints to reporters, donors and prospective students -- much the way advertisers sell soap.

The lack of an investigative tradition among education writers stems in part from the fact that higher education once was viewed as largely sacrosanct and incorruptible. Academia's moral high ground gave way slowly, but the ultimate collapse might be traced to the day the former president of Stanford University was caught using taxpayer money to throw parties and redecorate a yacht. Before that time, few papers ran stories critical of such things as administrative bloat, high presidential salaries and tenured faculty who teach only about 28 weeks a year.

Still, too few media outlets pursue these angles. It took years before most higher education writers went beyond the news releases and dared to pose the questions: Why exactly does tuition increase every year at double the rate of inflation? Exactly what component of a higher education has increased in price at double the rate of inflation?

Even today, too many reporters and editors readily accept the explanation they get from colleges and universities, which goes something like this: Everything just costs more; or, There still are affordable community colleges; or this year, If you save all your disposable income and work two jobs and take out loans, your kid can go here.

Feeble as it is, the media continue to be blamed by higher education administrators for blowing college costs out of all proportion -- part of a rationalization every Psych 101 student knows as "denial." If the increases continue to be extravagant, it doesn't matter what the base cost is -- especially at the same time the proportion of the budget spent on actual instruction has been shrinking, along with the average faculty workload and the length of the academic calendar, while the proportion of budgets spent on marketing and publics relations is growing.

Maybe there are reasonable answers to the questions about higher education costs and productivity. Maybe Americans would be sympathetic to them. But reporters have to ask, and universities have to answer.

My favorite example of such unasked questions comes from a story about primary education: the patriotic Philadelphia summit convened by President Clinton and General Colin Powell in 1997 to recruit millions of public-spirited volunteers whose jobs would be to help third graders learn to read. Despite virtual saturation print and broadcast coverage, no one asked why, in a nation that spends $600 billion a year on education, there are millions of illiterate third graders.

Nor are universities and colleges above attempting to mislead the public. Why shouldn't they, if they can pull it off so easily? Witness the campaign to persuade families that they can still afford tuition -- that beats explaining why the big annual increases have far outstripped income. Or an announcement of an early buyout plan one cash-strapped local university described as a "voluntary tenured faculty separation." Problem is, too few education journalists challenge the evasions and euphemisms. Just as few who covered the findings of the National Commission on the Cost of Higher Education exercised the discretion to point out that 11 of the commission's 13 members represented universities or university associations.

Education is, in fact, one of the most important topics in America. Few stories elicit reactions as strong as news about colleges and universities. Educators ought to take this as a compliment. Theirs are institutions where parents aspire to enroll their children and where students enjoy their first true taste of independence. Sports fans follow the athletic teams. Alumni savor the nostalgia. Businesses depend on them for competent employees and for basic and applied research.

Yet criticism of colleges and universities has increased as fast as their tuition. And cost is not the only complaint. There also is the ongoing debate about political correctness, in which even false charges are regurgitated by reporters who reprint them uncontested.

Weak higher education coverage does not help higher education. Good education journalism would remind its audience of the huge economic impact of colleges and universities, and detail gains from campus research, for example. But it also would intelligently report criticisms and reflect growing public anger at a time when colleges themselves appear too often to dismiss concerns about cost and other controversies.

Not all campuses are public places in the legal sense, but they are public possessions in the emotional (and financial) sense, and therefore accountable to neighbors, parents, students, prospects and alumni. And yet important higher education stories in New England and elsewhere are more often absent than on the front page or the evening news. Except, unfortunately, the ones that recapitulate the press releases.

Jon Marcus is a senior editor at Boston Magazine and covers U.S. higher education for the Times of London. This article first appeared in Connection, a publication of the New England Board of Higher Education.

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