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Navigating Politicized Arguments Over Academic Freedom? Lessons for Reporters

Journalists offer tips on tackling challenges to academic freedom while weighing facts and misinformation.

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Topics like “viewpoint diversity” and “critical race theory” have become controversial touchstones in higher education, primarily stemming from a September 2020 Trump administration executive order banning “divisive concepts” in diversity training. The order’s impact rippled through academia, resulting in challenges of how to ensure academic freedom at colleges and universities.

For reporters, navigating coverage of these topics can be challenging.

Reporters Colleen Flaherty and Divya Kumar, with Inside Higher Ed and the Tampa Bay Times, respectively, offered tips on how to tackle such divisive and complex issues at the Education Writers Association’s fall 2021 Higher Education Seminar.

Here are some lessons reporters can learn from the “How I Did the Academic Freedom Story” session, which was moderated by NPR’s Anya Kamenetz.

Don’t Rely on Blanket Claims. 

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis contends students may be getting “indoctrinated” by going to college. Others have stated that Florida universities have become breeding grounds for “cancel culture.”

Those are some of the claims Kumar investigated for her reporting on academic freedom for the Tampa Bay Times.

“I really wanted to find out what the environment actually is on campuses, and is that how people on campuses feel?” Kumar said.

Kumar spent a large part of her reporting talking with people who are within the campus community and directly affected, such as faculty unions, instead of solely relying on those larger claims often coming from outside of the university.

Flaherty, of Inside Higher Ed, concurred.

“It’s important to try to find these stories and gauge the extent to which they’re happening,” Flaherty said. “I would approach them all with a skeptical eye.”

Both Flaherty and Kumar also said they had heard stories about students feeling uncomfortable expressing their opinions in class.

“It can be kind of a telephone game,” Flaherty said. “If we keep on hearing about this one student over and over again, who is that student? Find that student. There’s got to be a report that you can track down somewhere.”

Tackling “Both Sides-ism”

Some of the questions reporters should be asking when reporting on academic freedom are: “Who are the sides of this debate?” and “What is the legitimate other side to represent?,” moderator Anya Kamenetz said.

Like in much reporting on complex topics, it’s not always black and white or right and wrong. It’s about seeking balance while also ensuring factual reporting. If your story requires referencing or describing a report on a false claim, be sure to pair that with an expert voice backed up by data and facts, Flaherty said.

Another way to tackle the “both sides-ism” of an academic freedom story is laying out clear definitions.

Kumar said she tends to shy away from “loaded language,” instead opting to describe terms fully.

“Intellectual diversity is thrown around a lot, but what does it actually mean?” Kumar said.

Considering Sources

Outside of the typical sources on college campuses, such as administrators, faculty and students — Flaherty, Kumar and Kamenetz said there are other sources worth contacting for stories on academic freedom.

  • Misinformation and disinformation experts: Data & Society is an independent research organization. Harvard Kennedy School’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy also has resources for reporters.
  • The American Association of University Professors has a page on teaching about race and responding to threats about academic freedom.
  • The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education is a nonprofit civil liberties organization focused on protecting free speech at colleges and universities.
  • Academic Freedom Alliance is a newly formed closed group of scholars who are working as a commission to make statements about academic freedom and eventually want to develop a legal fund to help instructors whose jobs are at risk.
  • Historians and academics covering the topics, who may be threatened by new state legislation, might also be good sources.“Most [historians] I’ve encountered, virtually all of them have been extremely willing to engage me and be quoted,” Flaherty said. “They tend to be really patient and generous because they see in many cases their life’s work being co-opted by the discourse, and they want to get the truth out there as they see it.”

Story Ideas to Think About

  • Check in with tenure track professors who have to teach critical race theory because of whatever field they’re working in. Can they stay in the state they’re in because of laws being passed against “divisive concepts?”
  • Talk to Ph.D. candidates and people about to go into the academic job market — have these new laws and arguments over academic freedom changed things for them?
  • Look into public records. Relevant complaints may be available by public records request if you’re located in a state with good public records laws.
  • Pay attention to university boards and individual board members. Are any members receiving individual donations linked to certain groups who may be fueling certain types of legislation?