How Higher Ed Covered The Supreme Court Healthcare Ruling

I was curious today to see how colleges and universities responded to the Supreme Court decision to uphold the Obama administration’s Affordable Care Act. So I looked at the homepages and main newsroom pages of the 61 schools in the Association of American Universities (AAU) to find out. These schools are the leading research universities in the United States and Canada. What I wondered was this: in addition to pitching their faculty experts and doing other media relations activities that have traditionally raised the profile of our institutions, how many colleges and universities chose to be their own publishers and tell their own stories regarding the big news of the day?

The answer is: not that many. Of the 61 schools, 45 did not publish any Web content about the ruling by the end of the day Thursday.

For the other 16 schools, I would say that the online coverage fell into three categories: experts lists or pitches, actual news stories, and real innovative approaches to communicating directly to your audiences about an important national story.

At the top of that last category I would put the University of Chicago, followed by Harvard University and the University of California at Berkeley. The University of Chicago live-tweeted a discussion among its law school professors hours after the ruling came down. The discussion was Storified and linked to from the university’s homepage. I just think it’s amazing both that they got something so substantive together so quickly and that they were thoughtful enough to include ways for a larger audience outside the room to participate. At Harvard, the Harvard Gazette published a complete package with expert commentary and video, and the School of Public Health will hold a live webcast tomorrow, which I think is a fabulous way of allowing members of your own community (and by extension the general public) to benefit from the expertise of your best professors and researchers. Finally, Berkeley linked to faculty bloggers from its homepage, another great way to show the character of your university while sharing informed opinion to both internal and external audiences.

Of the schools that did their own news stories on the matter, I would say that Brown and Emory were fairly representative. Brown included five different short reactions from professors in various health-related fields. And Emory did the same, with the addition of some commentary from law school professors along with an older “explainer” video from a health policy professor.

Better-than-average story approaches I think came from Duke and Stanford. Duke provided a fully reported and well-written story summarizing faculty reaction from across the university, as well as a separate story explaining that the decision would not affect Duke’s own benefit plans. They were the only school that I saw that did that, and I think that is a great idea: anticipating the questions of your own community and reassuring them right out of the gate. Duke also included a Storify of faculty tweets in the immediate aftermath of the ruling. From its homepage Stanford linked to a story from its School of Public Health that was a kind of rolling blog with commentary from different professors added throughout the day. And once again we see Storify in action, with the university’s law school professors’ reactions added to the mix by the end of the day.

Hmm, that’s three uses of Storify to collect faculty commentary and reaction on an important issue. So far, I have only used Storify for big, student-focused events like Commencement and Move-In Day. It’s great to see some inspiration for using it as a way to capture research stories or academic stories.

Finally, with what I would characterize as the lowest level of content creation and storytelling, were the experts lists that several schools compiled and then linked to from their homepages or newsrooms. Some typical examples include the experts lists at theĀ University of Virginia and the University of Texas.

I’ll be honest and say that these lists feel like missed opportunities, and they kinda depressed me. I should say that here at the University of Rochester I am in the large group of AAU schools who did nothing so, hello, kettle? This is pot. But still, these lists just make it clear to me that the goal of the communications offices that produced them is to get the name of the university into print, and not to help members of their community understand a complex issue, an issue that some members of the university community are experts in. And that seems to me to be a very limited, very “insider” goal. I should also say that I’m not a press officer, so I don’t have a good sense of how successful these experts lists are in achieving media relations goals. But does it need to be a zero sum game? If you are going to take the time to compile these lists, would it be possible at the same time to get a few quotes and write up a simple story that your own community could read and benefit from directly?

With both CNN and Fox News rushing to report today’s Supreme Court decision news (and getting a few details wrong in the process) perhaps there is a place for the smart people at research universities to become another direct source of news?


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