The Press And Academia: An Ongoing Love Affair

by Conor Friedersdorf

In the windup for a post criticizing The Atlantic's higher education coverage that he promises is coming soon, Freddie writes:

I've found that many journalists and pundits love to attack the academy. My guess is that this is generally out of resentment towards the academic project. As a field, journalism is deeply hostile to any other systems of knowledge generation. It is particularly unfriendly to those who would attempt to counter the worst failings of the journalistic enterprise – its ludicrously short attention span, its impatience, its desire to condense complex phenomena into pithy sound bites, its lack of moderation of its messages, and more than anything, its absolute dogged attachment to sensationalism and provocation. Against these, the academy pits depth over breadth, the slow accumulation of qualified knowledge, the gradual acquisition of right practices, and moderation, moderation, moderation.

It is seldom useful to talk about the journalistic enterprise as a single effort – it requires subsuming The National Enquirer, Dateline NBC, This American Life, The New York Post, The American Scholar, and book length journalism into a single entity with common charactertistics. For the sake of argument, however, let's take The Washington Post as an influential journalistic entity that shares features with many others. Is it ludicrously impatient, pithy when it could go into more depth, sensationalistic and provacative? Sometimes it is. Often journalists face pressure to succomb to those pathologies.

But it misses something to declare that "as a field, journalism is deeply hostile to any other systems of knowledge generation," especially if your example is the academy. Go to any journalism school, daily newspaper, or national magazine, and you'll find that academic sources are among the most prized by writers and editors.

Need an authority figure on policy? Most newsrooms have a literal book of professors who are expert in various subjects. It's a thing. And universities know it. Thus pages like this one at nearly every major institution. Need an expert on industrial politics? Three clicks gets you three names! And these people are treated as authorities. Often as not, the problem is that any study they produce is quoted too deferentially, that by virtue of being an academic they're granted too much authority. Lots of reporters attend masters programs at universities, where they adopt an academic model to study the field. Academic stars like Paul Krugman and Stanley Fish are prized as editorial hires by media companies. Reporters often return to institutions of higher education to bone up on some subject they've covered.

So while I agree that the academic approach and the output of various media outlets flow from different imperatives, and that there is some tension between them, it gets something wrong to say that journalism is deeply hostile to academic knowledge. In fact, it signals its reverence for that knowledge by privileging it as an authoritative source, and by maintaning a close, symbiotic relationship between the press and the academy. As a point of comparison, consider the approach the biggest daily newspapers take to claims of knowledge made by religious people. I'd say they're far more hostile to that system of knowledge.