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Now the Details

Media, ethics, and journalism. What works. What doesn't.

Jeffrey Dvorkin

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Should Academics Stay in the Ivory Tower?

Professor Eric Montpetit in his Globe and Mail op-ed of March 30 (“After Potter…”) made an assertion that as “universities seek to increase their presence in the media,…doing so comes with a risk as McGill found out last week.”

He was referring to an article in Maclean’s written by the now former head of the Institute for the study of Canada, Andrew Potter. This article came in for substantial criticism for its questionable assumptions about Quebec society’s allegedly missing qualities in the aftermath of a truly massive snowstorm.

As a former journalist, now in the somewhat sustaining groves of the academy (University of Toronto Scarborough Campus), I find Professor Montpetit has it exactly backwards. The increasingly thinned-out media have every reason to reach out to academics to provide the context that mainstream news organizations too often miss and their audiences deeply require.

Universities and colleges have the knowledge, the expertise and the communication skills to provide the background that is often ignored by news organizations in their  race to connect digitally with their readers, listeners and viewers.  Too often, media organizations rush to publish and drag their heels to run a correction.

One might blame Professor Potter and Maclean’s for contributing to this absence of  context. But to assume that one article with all its strongly expressed opinions, might contribute to the decline of high academic standards is curious on the face of it.

Universities, public and private, have an obligation to contribute to the quality of discourse in our society. But assuming that only the highest peer-reviewed academic standards must also apply to daily news shows a distinct lack of understanding of how the university culture is perceived. More to the point, Professor Montpetit seems to have little understanding or appreciation of how the news industry operates.

In my time as a journalist and news manager, I found that there was a distinct strain of snobbery in the academy when it came to media organizations and their request for a quick comment on a matter of passing importance.

And journalists get impatient with academics who would rather give a more thoughtful response, usually “in a few days” when the demands of teaching and other academic obligations are out of the way. That’s not unreasonable, but it plays hell with a reporter working on deadline!

In this digital environment, the fault also lies with a news culture that is being deformed by the economics of media: news organizations demand their journalists produce more and to do it in more media – it’s not enough to report the story; it has to be posted on Facebook, twitter, Instagram and whatever platform is seen as the best way to attract the audience. Reporters have always looked to professors to quickly confirm the assumption of a story line or an editorial position. But as the news has become more a creature of the “quick hit”, academics can feel ill-used by the ink-stained wretches who come calling, looking for a 10 second confirmation.

The professoriat is fulfilling an important role precisely because news organizations are being increasingly hollowed-out editorially.  Massive layoffs in newspapers and broadcasters offer thinner gruel to the public. That may be why, in one day alone (March 30, 2017), the University of Toronto single-handedly provided a professorial quote to 82 media organizations in Canada and abroad!  Universities are not cloisters. They have an obligation to serve and inform the public, and not just to their own students and faculties.

For Professor Montpetit to state that just being in the media goes against the purpose of the university as a “knowledge institution” is short sighted, in my opinion.

The public would be ill-served if the ivory tower (funded by taxpayers) were to pull up the drawbridge , even if Professor Potter’s article appears to have embarrassed a few tender sensibilities in the faculty club.

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