Sunday, June 10, 2007

UMass Boston and bias in the Boston Globe, continued

I wanted to post a brief follow-up to an issue that came up last year, when a student group at the University of Massachusetts, Boston, claimed bias in the Boston Globe. The story was picked up by Universal Hub, and drew a lot of community comments. The group used stats from LexisNexis to support their case, claiming that "the Boston Globe has an established pattern of seriously underreporting events at UMass Boston--a large public college--when compared to its generous coverage of large private colleges in the Boston area."

As regular readers of this blog know, I have used LexisNexis in my thesis research and class papers. I collected additional information from LexisNexis that better described the patterns of Boston Globe coverage relating to UMass Boston and several other colleges in the area, including Harvard. The data supported the UMass group's claim of bias/favoritism toward different colleges and universities in the area. You can see the results here.

At the time, I anticipated that the public shaming of the Globe would encourage it to pay more attention to the news, events, and research coming out of UMass Boston. So far, that hasn't happened. This afternoon, I did some more Lexis Nexis searches, comparing references to UMass Boston and MIT, and found that coverage of UMass Boston has actually declined in the Globe, when compared with earlier years. (Harvard, BC, BU, and Northeastern were left out of this survey, owing to the tendency of sports-related happenings to inflate the results).

Here's what I found, when I compared the January 1st to June 11th UMass and MIT coverage for each year, starting in 2004:

MIT or "Massachusetts Institute of technology" in the headline

2004: 43
2005: 32
2006: 26
2007: 32

UMass in headline, and "University of Massachusetts at Boston" or "UMass Boston" in the full text, but not Dartmouth or Lowell or Amherst in full text (this allows for the short version of UMass in headline, which copy editors and editors prefer, but the article is about UMass Boston, as opposed to UMass Amherst, UMass Lowell, and UMass Dartmouth)

2004: 5
2005: 19
2006: 7
2007: 2

So, while coverage of MIT has actually increased when compared with the same period last year, and is comparable to the 2005 levels, articles about UMass Boston are not only rare, they are considerably less common than last year's levels.

Of course, it can be argued that this is not a true measure of UMass Boston-related coverage, as I am excluding all of the articles that may also cite the other University of Masschusetts campuses. Furthermore, there may have been some UMass-related news that did not mention the school's name in the headline.

Others may point out that this is not a fair comparison -- MIT is one of the largest research universities in the United States, and is involved with several high-profile national initiatives that generate lots of news, such as the Broad Institute.

But even if you exclude consideration of MIT, and just concentrate on the results for UMass Boston, the trend is clear: The city's largest newspaper has reduced coverage of a major public university on its own doorstep.

Incidentally, I was prompted to look into this issue by an interesting discussion taking place on the Extension Student discussion forum. I started the thread after seeing two of Harvard's own publications -- the Harvard Gazette (a publication of the Harvard News Office, I believe) and the Harvard Crimson (A Harvard College-oriented newspaper) placing the Harvard Extension School last in Commencement-related articles.


Uncomfortable with the possibility that certain types of articles about UMass Boston were being excluded because of no mention of the school in the headline, I expanded the search criteria to include references to "University of Massachusetts at Boston" or "UMass Boston" in the headline *or* lead paragraph. The results for the year-on-year searches from January 1 to June 11 since 2004:

2004: 30
2005: 52
2006: 22
2007: 24

The results for MIT or "Massachusetts Institute of technology" in the headline or lead paragraph:

2004: 179
2005: 166
2006: 187
2007: 158

The problem with including the lead paragraph results is that many articles are not specifically about the university in question. For instance, one of the 2007 articles that mentioned UMass Boston in the lead paragraph was an editorial that only mentioned the school because of the UMass Boston Commencement speech by Gov. Patrick. The real focus of the editorial was community colleges across Massachusetts.


Anonymous said...

As someone who took classes at both Harvard Extension and UMass-Boston, I think there's good reason both schools would merit less coverage.

First, let's take Harvard Extension. When I attended, Harvard treated students as second-class citizens. We couldn't even use the main library. And the admissions requirements were much much lower. (Anyone could take classes there if you paid the fees.)

Second, let's take UMass. Unlike Harvard and MIT, UMass is not engaged in major development projects. It doesn't have a lot of prestigious alumni or research. And it's a commuter school, so there aren't a lot of frats getting into trouble.

ian said...

Thanks for your comment, anon. Yes, MIT and Harvard have a lot more pull with the media, considering their alumni, size, and high-profile research initiatives. But what bothers many other local campuses is the near lack of coverage accorded to the events, developments, and worthy research taking place elsewhere. Of the handful of Globe headlines relating to UMass in 2006, many of them related to totally mundane news - someone driving their car into the harbor from the UMass campus, the school demolishing a parking garage, etc. The amount of coverage, and the type of coverage given to UMass Boston relative to other universities in town says a lot about the Globe's priorities and constituencies.

Regarding the comment about the Harvard Extension School, I am happy to say that we students are now allowed to use most or all libraries on campus, including Widener. The admissions requirements for specific Extension School programs varies, but generally involves taking a certain number of classes (which are open admission) and getting high grades. For my program (graduate-level history) there is also a thesis requirement.