Media and higher education do not inhabit two solitudes. As underscored in this issue, media and academia co-exist, albeit somewhat uncomfortably. They are both public educators: analyzing, interpreting, and broadcasting ideas about the world.
They part company, however, over how that is done. Mainstream media reject intricacy, conveying “certainty” and easily digestible depictions of events and ideas. Sound bites and two-line quotes are what’s required now for mainstream media news coverage.
Complexity and nuance characterize most academic research. When engaging with the mainstream media, academics chafe at seeing their research oversimplified and sensationalized, or rejected out of hand by a media that is increasingly conservative in its ideological orientation.
Both face unique pressures that affect the way they interact. Commercial imperatives—the need to attract advertisers and readers—drive the mainstream media. In an era of corporate consolidation, mass layoffs of journalists, and definitions of “newsworthiness” based on target audiences, the possibilities for expansive mainstream media coverage of higher education is limited.
For academics, the university as a haven for contemplation and research, detached from the “outside world,” is no longer a reality, if it ever were. Universities face political and financial pressures to make research more accessible to the public and to engage the mainstream media: witness the creation of university media offices and contact lists of expert academic commentators.
Mainstream media is not the only venue through which academia can reach a broader public—or academic—audience. Higher education “niche” media is an outlet for coverage, commentary, and analysis. As Karen MacGregor notes in this issue, web-based publications such—as University World News and Inside Higher Ed are part of an expanding universe of higher education coverage, providing greater visibility to the academic world.
And universities themselves have a long tradition of creating their own media outlets: campus-based public radio stations, as well as newspapers and journals. But these have been largely inwardly focused.
The internet and social media have created enormous possibilities for expanding the media sphere of higher education. Already there is a proliferation of bloggers and citizen journalists, university and discipline-specific websites, YouTube channels, Facebook pages, and Twitter accounts devoted to academic issues.
Is this now the moment for universities to go beyond these often disparate and uncoordinated initiatives to become news centres in their own right? Certainly it is an idea that is increasingly entertained.
Two years ago, in an Inside Higher Ed article, David Scobey mused about a national network of campus-based news sites that could cover local, state/provincial and national issues. This year, University of British Columbia science blogger Nassif Ghoussoub envisioned a similar undertaking in a blog-post , “The University as New Media Superpower.”
The concept is not as far-fetched as it initially may appear. Campus-based daily news sites in various forms currently exist. “Futurity,” a website hosted at the University of Rochester, has for a number of years aggregated research news and analysis from universities in the U.S., Canada, and the U.K. The intent is to broaden awareness of university research in the context of declining research coverage by traditional media . The Academic Minute, a partnership between public radio and academia in the U.S., provides daily broadcasts featuring commentaries by leading academic researchers.
And in March 2011, a consortium of Australia’s leading universities, working with experienced journalists, launched “The Conversation,” an online academic news publication. The intent is to encourage academics to provide commentary on the economy, energy, the environment, politics, science, technology and health.
Are such initiatives economically sustainable in the long run? Will they reflect a genuine diversity of viewpoints? Can they reach beyond an academic audience and become the public’s “go to” place for information, analysis, and informed debate.
It is too early to know. However, the promise of campus-based news sites is to go beyond merely expanding the public reach of higher education. They speak to the democratic promise of higher education envisioned by Mark Kingwell in his article here. And, as David Scobey has observed, they have “transformative implications for both the press and the academy…They might serve as a much-needed laboratory for the civic journalism movement…energize the civic engagement movement within higher education, grounding our sometimes grandiose commitment to public work in the frictional, daily encounter with our communities and their stories.”
Mark Rosenfeld is Editor-in-Chief of Academic Matters and Associate Executive Director of OCUFA.