The Faculty and the Fourth Estate

If faculty want to be heard on the major issues facing higher education, they might start by improving their relationship with the press.
By Scott Jaschik

I once interviewed a philosophy professor about a controversy at his campus. He asked me if I knew who Nietzsche was, and I told him I did. He asked me if I had read him in the original, and I confessed I hadn’t. He sighed and remarked about the ignorance of the press these days. The interview didn’t go well. I didn’t quote him. He likely thought I was wasting his time.

The relationship between faculty members and the press is complicated. Judging by surface similarities, you might think reporters and academics would get along well. Both groups care about words and ideas, and in both careers, people can make their names by challenging conventional wisdom and framing issues in new ways. Critics of both groups accuse them of liberal bias. But as my unsuccessful interview with the Nietzsche scholar suggests, we don’t always communicate well with each other.

I have covered higher education for more than twenty years, primarily for publications that are read by academics. But in this article, I want to focus on reporters who work for general-interest media—the local newspapers, television stations, blogs, and so forth that are read by nonacademics—and on the academics who may end up working with these reporters. I am a consumer of such journalism and frequently talk with the journalists who produce it. I hear the same frustrations all the time. My hope is to bridge some of the gap. I don’t expect that faculty members will be pleased with every article written about them or their profession, but I think the odds go up (as do journalists’ odds of getting the story right) if we communicate more effectively.

The Environment

Journalism and higher education are both experiencing rapid change. My profession is seeing far too many publications go under and far too many talented journalists lose their jobs. Many newspapers deny reporters who work in suburban bureaus (a large share of those entering the profession) anything resembling job security or good benefits—it’s remarkably similar to the treatment of contingent faculty members.

For those of you who get a call or an e-mail from a local reporter, this means that the odds are that the person is overworked and doesn’t have a lot of expertise about higher education or time to learn its concerns. Many higher ed beat reporting slots have been eliminated, if they were there to begin with, so you may be contacted by a “general assignment” reporter who has no real background in academia. Many publications have a single education reporter covering any number of local school districts and colleges. Reporters run from school board meeting to school board meeting—with little time to learn issues. Asking such reporters why they don’t know the history of your college and haven’t studied it before calling you is somewhat like asking contingent faculty members why they haven’t landed a grant from the National Institutes of Health this week. Both might have the talent to do so but not the time or support.

Then there is the issue of perspective. Most news coverage about higher education is written from a consumer perspective—and the consumer is a suburban parent. This means that reporters are focused on certain issues, typically from the viewpoint of that parent: Will my kid get into college? How much will it cost? How long to a degree? After graduation, will my kid get a job or move back in with me? In other words, stories are much more likely to be practical than philosophical.

Some academics would look at these constricted realities of coverage and feel as though it’s not worth their time to deal with reporters. After all, we aren’t going to help you grade papers, land a grant, or write the peer-reviewed article that can help you win tenure. But I’d argue that if an ivory-tower attitude was ever effective (and I’m dubious that it was), it is definitely not helpful now. Colleges are experiencing budget cuts many would have thought unimaginable—and there are few signs that the public is rebelling over the impact of these cuts on the quality of education. Coverage of these and so many other issues—the growth of online and for-profit education, debates over the curriculum, research policy, and more—are usually devoid of meaningful faculty perspective. Can you really look at the status quo and think it is serving the faculty well?

What to Do—and What Not to Do

If you want to do a better job of engaging the press, here are some tips:

1. Be reachable. If you play a key role in campus governance, say on the faculty senate or with a union or an AAUP chapter, make it clear to reporters that you are reachable and then follow through. When you assume these offices, or when you notice a new reporter on the beat, send an e-mail with your cell phone number and tell the person to call anytime (the gesture says you are available, and that builds trust). Offer to meet for coffee once a month to trade gossip, talk about upcoming issues, and so on— not for a specific article, but to stay connected. This is how substantive stories can emerge over time.

2. Be responsive and be quick about it. I know you’re busy, but it’s important to remember that most reporters don’t want hours of your time—and they are likely facing a daily deadline and fifteen minutes may be their maximum. It’s fine to e-mail or call back and ask if there is a specific deadline and to schedule accordingly. But not calling back, or e-mailing about your willingness to talk—next month, after you finish the next book chapter—won’t work. It’s much better to call back and, if necessary, set a time limit on your call. But call back or communicate the day you are approached. Otherwise, your voice, which may be the only faculty voice, simply won’t be included.

3. Keep the jargon in check, and I don’t mean just postmodern jargon. Academia has its own language, and all kinds of words and phrases that are clear to the readers of Academe mean nothing to most reporters or most of their readers. Hard as it may be to believe, most people just don’t use words, phrases, and acronyms like “shared governance,” “peer review,” “IRB,” and so forth. Try to minimize their use and—if you need them—define them succinctly and say why they matter.

4. Don’t assume that reporters (or their audiences) will share your values and “get it” just because you do. Take shared governance. Most reporters are writing for readers— whether they are on the governing or governed side of the divide—who have never worked for an organization where shared governance is even a stated value, much less has a concrete existence. It won’t be clear to these readers why its loss or abrogation is something to worry about. Similarly, when talking about tenure, remember that reporters don’t have tenure and never will (and we, like professors, work in fields where we often write things that offend powerful people). To say that it’s impossible to do good work without tenure may not convince many reporters. I’m not saying you shouldn’t make a case to defend shared governance or tenure, but think about a nonacademic audience and why your argument will or will not be persuasive.

5. Remember the reporter’s perspective. Building on the point above, many reporters will zone out when you start talking about how a given policy change means you have to work harder. They operate on the assumption that everyone is working harder. Other kinds of arguments related to workload may have more power. For example, many faculty members report that as class size goes up, the number of papers they can assign goes down—and the students end up getting less feedback. That’s an argument that speaks to the consumer perspective (in this case, the quality of education for students) that most newspapers value.

6. Share nuance, but in moderation. Academics advance knowledge by studying everything about a given topic. Reporters file stories by sifting—deciding which bits of information they need to understand so they can explain an issue and which background details to share with readers. It’s important to remember that a reporter isn’t a doctoral student. So if you are talking about, say, the elimination of a department of rural sociology at a land-grant university, it’s vital to make sure the reporter knows what a land-grant university is, but it’s probably not a good time to delve into the history of U.S. agriculture.

7. Get your numbers right. These days, many journalistic inquiries will concern budgets and cuts. An administration has proposed something, and faculty members are opposed. While clearly many professors take the time to learn about budgets and how they work, others—to be blunt— don’t. I have received tips from faculty members where the numbers are way off. A 5 percent cut is described as a 20 percent cut. Or, in the course of a discussion, it becomes clear that the faculty member has no idea how much state money an institution has just lost. When numbers given by faculty members are seen as incorrect, or when faculty leaders seem unaware of larger political or fiscal developments, they lose credibility with reporters. Many times, I’ve had administrators respond to faculty criticism by saying, in essence: “We love our faculty members. They mean well, but they just don’t know the financial realities.” I am not saying that faculty members should accept every number given by the administration. In fact, AAUP chapters have recently done full financial analyses challenging administrators’ projections—and these dueling budgets have made for interesting stories. But to challenge numbers, you need to know what they are.

8. Remember that the media world is changing rapidly and faculty members benefit from engaging with a range of outlets—including those they don’t agree with. When thinking about reporters or publications to get to know, remember that there is more to life than the New York Times. If you are in public higher education, are you following the work of the bloggers in Albany or Austin or Sacramento who are “must reads” for legislators? They may be more politically influential than the larger newspapers in your state (which have likely cut the state government bureaus). Likewise, let’s say you like the way NPR handles higher education issues. Maybe you should check out “Phi Beta Cons,” the higher ed blog of the National Review. You might dislike its views, but post a comment now and then and be aware of the coverage—I’d guess that you have at least one board of trustees member who checks it out.

9. If something is wrong, let the reporter know. The saying “Don’t pick a fight with anyone who buys ink by the barrel” scares off many people from complaining to reporters. But in the Internet era, you shouldn’t allow errors to go unchanged. If an article says that all professors at your college earn six-figure salaries, and that’s not true, you need to get it fixed before the next reporter comes along, does a search, and cites the same figure. The best way to get a correction is to contact the reporter and be calm and low key. If it isn’t a fact but a perspective you think is wrong, a letter to the editor can be effective. These generally have the best shot of running if they are pithy.

10. Don’t go “off the record” without clearly defining your terms. A dirty secret of the journalism profession is that there is no true consensus on what we mean by “off the record,” “on background,” or a variety of other terms. You are best off defining your terms at the beginning of the conversation. If you don’t want to be quoted by name but are okay about being identified as a faculty member, say that. If this information can’t be used in any way in a particular story, say that. Generally, reporters try to minimize anonymous quotes and are more likely to agree to keep your name out of the story if you can explain why in a way that can be justified clearly in the article. So, a reporter may well agree to write, “said one adjunct faculty member who asked for anonymity because she has no job security.” In discussing the reasons you don’t want to use your name, be up front about them and negotiate (but do so before your interview, not after, when a reporter may go ahead with information obtained).

While I have outlined here areas where academics sometimes frustrate journalists, I would be remiss not to close by thanking readers of this publication and many other faculty members for sharing their expertise with me over the years. I have gained tips, perspective, and ideas I never could have in any other way but for their generosity with their time and expertise.

I share the frustrations above in part because the editor of Academe asked me to but also out of the view that some of the best arguments on behalf of faculty members may not be getting voiced simply because these arguments aren’t reaching journalists. I thought of the professor who wrote me off because I hadn’t read Nietzsche in the original. I was writing about German studies departments being eliminated at several colleges and universities and seeking out people who might tell me why such a move was problematic. I don’t speak German, let alone read philosophy in German. But I want those who do to share their views on why their field matters.

Scott Jaschik is editor and cofounder of Inside Higher Ed. His articles on higher education have appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Boston Globe, and elsewhere. His e-mail address is [email protected].



Good advice here for those of us in higher ed, and let me add some more:

Be aware that journalists look for "the other side" to the story -- if they are calling you about something you think is an achievement, be aware that others may think it's a waste of taxpayers' money or an ideological affront.  Do not expect the reporter to tell you that he or she will be interviewing someone who disapproves of your project or position or grant proposal, but assume that such will be the case and choose your words accordingly.

Also, as in all things electronic, read and reread any email you send to reporters, especially if you are reacting to something the reporter has said or is quoting someone as saying.  Take a deep breath. Let someone else read your email response.  Then send it.  Education reporters are our friends. 

P. K.