On Public Distrust, Colleges Could Learn From Journalism’s Mistakes

Clara Turnage, Tidsskriftet for Universiteternes Efter- og Videreuddannelse, Jul 13, 2017
Commentary by Stephen Downes

The headline of this article makes a great point but unfortunately the article doesn't follow up, choosing instead to blame distrust on misunderstandings on the part of the public. For example: "When people talk about their confidence about higher education or the media, they don’t pause and think, ‘What would happen if we didn’t have them?’" OK, fine, but that's not what causes distrust. Yes, people focus on "their indiscretions and controversies," but in the case of news media there were just so many of them, ranging from a concentration of corporate ownership, a focus on the trivial, stage and altered images, abetting the misleading of the public, all the way to outright sexism and  racism. We didn't need apologists for the rich and powerful, which is why we began to distrust the press, and to believe we could live without them.

What can academia learn from this? The lesson would seem to be obvious, but the article doesn't touch it. The media was prompted into dishonesty by its owners and sponsors; could the same happen to universities? It doesn't help that universities allow the manipulation of research results. Or using research to influence public opinion. Abetting academic dishonesty. Excluding the poor. All the way to outright sexism and  racism. So long as universities are seen as taking the side of the rich and powerful, to the detriment of the rest of us, they will be increasingly distrusted. It's a clear message. But what will it take for universities to hear it?

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