The University Record, October 9, 1995

Gibson: Universities might not stand up to media scrutiny

By Jared Blank

“How does mass media look at large universities?” ABC’s Good Morning America host Charles Gibson asked rhetorically of those attending the second lecture of the “Changing in a World of Change: The University and its Publics” series last Monday at Rackham Amphitheatre.

“They don’t,” he said.

“And I would contend that I’m not sure that you would want us to cover you. You are probably better off being ignored,” he added.

The alumnus of the Journalism Fellowship program was critical both of the relevance of academic research and the inclination of the media to lean toward stories that focus on dysfunctional aspects of society.

Gibson argued that there are a number of reasons why universities are overlooked.

First, he said, universities may not be able to hold up under intense scrutiny. “I understand the value of a research institution,” but to many, much of the research conducted as universities seems far removed from being useful to the general public. “As a reporter I would want to know how much money is being spent for academic research and what is being turned out as a result of that and whether or not, since that takes away from teaching time, it is really worthwhile.”

In addition, he said, he would “be interested in what the public reaction would be to what the average faculty member carries in terms of teaching load.” He also noted that athletic programs and how they fit into the overall scheme of a university would be “grist for the mill” for reporters searching out stories. “I’m not sure universities would hold up well under the same scrutiny placed on the United States Congress.”

Even as a strong supporter of higher education, he said that he questions the value of graduate degrees in some fields. “I am far more inclined to recommend a liberal arts graduate for a job than somebody who comes out of a communications graduate program. Most of the work and most of the research that they have done for three years I find to be irrelevant.”

Gibson said that in the field of communications, academic work and professional work are entirely different. He noted that he has attempted to read television and journalism journals, but he often cannot understand the highly scientific language they contain. “I can’t find anything in the journals applicable to me as a professional.”

President James J. Duderstadt responded that the reason universities are ignored may be the fault of the journalists, themselves. The journalists’ “vision of the universities may be a nostalgic one that is decades out of date. They are almost offended by what universities have become. There is a perception gap. This misconception could be a source of great concern,” he said.

On the positive side, Gibson said that universities tend to be ignored because media believe that academia is “above the fray.” News organizations often feel that universities “won’t respond to things as base as the rest of society, that there is a contemplative atmosphere on campuses.”

Gibson also noted that because the United States has “the best” higher education system in the world, there is no reason to report on it. He criticized the media for harping on negative stories. “I’ll be the happiest person on the face of the Earth when the O.J. trial is over,” he said.

According to Gibson, the future is looking brighter in one respect for the relationship between universities and the media. “We both have an insatiable desire for experts.” And many professors are becoming more comfortable speaking for television. In fact, he said, “Good Morning America” uses a number of professors as correspondents.

The lecture was the second in a series of presentations designed to examine ways in which the University needs to evolve to meet the changing needs of society. The series is co-sponsored by the Office of the President and Senate Assembly.