Thursday, September 14, 2006

Boston Globe coverage of Harvard and UMass Boston - LexisNexis helps spot a trend

This is great. A group from UMass-Boston, The Concerned Members of the UMass Boston College of Public and Community Service, has written an open letter to the Boston Globe, criticizing higher education coverage that favors Harvard, Boston University and MIT while sidelining the University of Massachusetts of Boston. The writers of the letter use one of my favorite tools, LexisNexis, to make their point:
"... Our analysis of Globe coverage of these colleges during this calendar year, clearly demonstrates a glaring disparity when compared with UMass Boston. Between 1/1/06 and 9/10/06 according to a full text Lexis-Nexis search on the names of each of the 4 private colleges for articles of all types appearing in the Boston Globe, we determined the following number of references: Northeastern=384, MIT=558, Harvard=589, and BU was the big winner at a whopping 1010 references.

UMass Boston by contrast was referenced a mere 99 times.

If one only looks at the number of references in articles written by either of the main Globe higher education reporters Marcella Bombardieri and Sarah Schweitzer during the same period, the picture remains disturbing: Northeastern=13, BU=21, MIT=23, Harvard=31.

UMass Boston comes in last again at 6.
However, another UMass student, "tblade", raises an interesting point in a comment posted on Universal Hub: the full text searches for these schools turns up a lot of results that only mention the schools in passing, and relating to issues that cannot involve UMass Boston owing to the relative newness of the school and lack of certain attributes, such as sports teams:
Clearly, the 1000 Globe mentions of BU are due in part to the large alumni base, famous alumni, sports, fascilities, etc. BU has been around 100 years longer than UMass Boston. I can only name 2 famous UMB alumni vs several famous BU alumni off the top of my head. UMB has no division 1 sports teams, and no fascilities like Nikerson Field, Aganis Arena, or the Huntington Theater to bring in oustside events, no BU medical center to bring trauma victims (UMass's medical campus is in Worcester), and no biolab.
Interestingly, The Concerned Members of the UMass Boston College of Public and Community Service aren't complaining about a lack of positive coverage of UMass Boston in the Globe. They're asking why a UMass Boston scandal isn't being reported, and make a very good comparison with the Globe's regular coverage of a recent scandal taking place at my own alma mater, Boston University's College of Communication.

Why is there a disparity in coverage? The letter writers say:

The UMass Boston College of Public and Community Service is simply too black, too poor, too female, too gay, too old and too disabled to be worthy of concern for the largely white middle-class writers and editors at the Boston Globe.
One could take their conclusion a step further -- the writers and editors at the Globe also assume that its suburban readership -- and advertisers -- don't want to hear about UMass Boston, either. The big-name, private colleges have more name recognition and a large local alumni presence not only compared to UMass, but also to the smaller private and public colleges in the area.

But I agree with tblade that there's more to the story than elitism. There's the sports angle. There's the issue of more newsworthy research being done at Harvard, BU and MIT compared to Umass, Pine Manor or Framingham State, not to mention huge land deals and construction projects taking place as these giant universities expand in Allston, Cambridge, Watertown, and Chestnut Hill. These have a major impact on local politics and residents, which in turn leads to more coverage.

And let's not forget Harvard's regular parade of famous speakers that often become the focus of news. Last week it was the former Iranian president visting the Kennedy School that caused a ruckus. In a situation like this, the Globe has an obligation to report the news and the local reaction, which was overwhelmingly negative.

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