Blatant bias, willful media blindness in coverage of campus ideological freedom survey

by | Aug 28, 2022

 


  • More than 18,000 college campus surveys were collected by Florida’s State University System, measuring ideological freedom and viewpoint diversity
  • The media almost universally failed to report any of the data, and focused exclusively on the number of surveys that weren’t returned
  • Multiple news outlets all followed the same story template to focus attention on anything except the data
  • Reporters used loaded language, invented motives for students, relied on biased experts, and in some cases, made up “facts” of their own

This week, thousands upon thousands of complaints of intimidation and bias, filed by college students and employees, were summarily dismissed by the Florida media on the flimsy grounds that many hundreds of thousands of their colleagues didn’t file a complaint.

Ordinarily, Florida’s media would jump at the chance to spotlight any data that shows intolerance for diversity of thought. But not this time, because the survey was intended to measure ideological freedom and viewpoint diversity across our state’s college campuses, and the results reveal that the intimidation and bias is driven by staunchly liberal attitudes. And so rather than report the startling survey results of from over 18,000 people – enough to fill an NBA basketball arena – submitted from across Florida’s 12 public colleges and universities, Florida’s mainstream media outlets went into echo-chamber overdrive to ignore the trove of data [read our summary, here] and instead focus on the allegedly low “response rate” based on the fact that the entirely optional survey was emailed to hundreds of thousands of potential participants.

Yet these are the same media outlets that regularly report polling data predicting the outcomes of elections involving millions of voters based on sample sizes of fewer than 1,000 responses, and never question the “response rate” that the pollster encountered – which is typically astronomical. In this case, Florida’s State University System received eighteen times as many responses as a typical poll, and the media can’t even be bothered to report the findings.

Here’s a rundown of the excuses offered by Florida’s media echo-chamber on this subject:

Politico Florida

The state’s ultimate political insider publication kicked things off by kicking the survey’s draft report in the head the instant it was released, using this loaded lead:

A massive scale free speech survey launched by Florida’s university system scored an abysmal response rate from students…

Reporter Andrew Atterbury’s choice to use the subjective descriptor “abysmal” in the lead of Politico’s story begs the question: abysmal compared to what other “viewpoint diversity surveys” on other college campuses? If there are others, Politico didn’t mention any. How can we know the rate is truly abysmal if we aren’t given similar college student and employee survey response rates to compare it to?

Like most people, college students and professors have a lot going on in their lives, and their email inboxes could be just as busy as anyone else’s. Some may never have even opened the email. Others perhaps didn’t have the time to complete the survey, or failed to submit it for any number of reasons, including the fact that they might not have felt comfortable doing so. Finally, we are talking about college students, who simply have a lot of things competing for their time and attention.

But if the lead paragraph of the story wasn’t biased enough with its tunnel-vision focus on the “response rate,” consider the second graph:

The data is likely to be used by Florida Republican leaders to reinforce concerns that schools are biased against conservatives despite measuring the perspective of roughly 2 percent of Florida’s university students.

Talk about putting the cart before the horse. Here, Politico admits there is actual data with real value, but instead Atterbury provides his personal opinion on why readers should be dismissive of the data – you can almost see the author’s eyes rolling as he types it out – before once again reinforcing the subjectively “low” number of responses by mentioning the 2 percent “response rate” rather informing readers that over 18,000 responses were received.

The Florida Phoenix

Home to a number of ex-mainstream journalists who once pretended to be objective, the Phoenix doesn’t explicitly admit their hard-left liberal worldview, but at least they don’t hide it. That bias was on full display this week, though, with a pair of stories on the matter that were equally loaded with progressive venom, both focused on the “response rate” rather than the data from 18,000 students and employees. Here’s the lead of one:

The miniscule response rate of an “intellectual freedom and viewpoint diversity” survey — ditched by hundreds of thousands of students — received only a passing mention Friday from the Florida Board of Governors that oversees the public university system.

Perhaps the Board of Governors gave the “response rate” a passing mention because it isn’t as important as the opinions of 18,073 people who did respond?

Note the way reporter Danielle J. Brown uses the same technique as Politico (substituting “miniscule” for “abysmal”) and then goes on to describe the intent by students to actively ignore the survey, even though there is no evidence that students ever saw or opened the email or thought of it as anything other than spam. Perhaps she also thought using the term “ditched” was less of an outright lie than attempting to get away with saying the survey was intentionally ignored, but even so, claiming it was “ditched” paints a picture of intent on the part of students that the Phoenix can’t support with the existing evidence.

Brown pulled a similar stunt the day before, in a story headlined “What happened? Almost no students respond…” (imagine thinking that thousands of Florida college students are “almost none”).

Her lead paragraph begins:

Florida’s public university students seemed reluctant to fill out a controversial survey…

Here again, Brown and The Phoenix took poetic license to assign motive to the non-responding students as if she somehow knows they consciously and willfully refused to complete the survey. In truth, she has no evidence. Then she describes the survey as being “controversial” for daring to ask students and employees if they feel free to express their views and opinions on campus.

WFSU / Florida Public Radio

Here’s the echo chamber on full display. WFSU’s News Director, Lynn Hatter, gets in on the act by regurgitating the same narrative both in the headline, the subheadline and lead paragraph of her story, which begins by saying there were “few takers” for the survey, hand-waving away the 18,073 people who took the time to complete the survey. In fact, nowhere in her story does Hatter bother to mention that total number of responses, but she makes sure to include the fact that 320,000 students were emailed.

In the lead paragraph, Hatter strangely tells us we should just ignore her entire story because the survey is worthless, in her opinion:

Results are in from the state’s first survey of viewpoint diversity on public university campuses but there’s little that may be gleaned from it.

Oh really? Then why expend another 970 words telling reasons all the reasons the survey is worthless? Why expend so much effort trying to invalidate the data? Well, for that, you have to skip to the very bottom of her story, where she admits the real reason for the coordinated media resistance:

A lawsuit challenging the survey is ongoing amid ever-present fears from many professors and educators that potentially tainted results will be used to further a belief that conservative voices aren’t getting enough traction.

Note that Hatter somehow magically knows that there are “ever-present fears” held by “many professors and educators.” Well, now. That is interesting, indeed. How does she know this? Was there a survey to measure those fears? Why in fact there was! The very survey she’s reporting on. And the “ever-present fears” do exist. It’s just that they’re reported by conservative students, faculty and employees, and have nothing to do with fears about how the survey will be used. But Hatter can’t be bothered to be honest about it.

Tallahassee Democrat

Here’s yet another “abysmal” example hidden behind the paywalled Tallahassee Democrat. Readers can get around the idiotic paywall by just visiting Yahoo! if they want to expose themselves to James Call’s regurgitation of the same, trite narrative about the “response rate.” Like his colleagues, his headline implies without evidence that students willfully ignored the survey.

The Democrat then sought out one of those so-called “experts” who provided the quote the reporter needed to support his narrative.

Unfortunately for Call and The Democrat, the “expert” cited is the plainly partisan (and therefore frequently quoted) University of Florida college professor Dan Smith, who pulled no punches in the story about his disdain for Governor Ron DeSantis while inventing a completely made up explanation for the response rate – again without evidence – to further his own political agenda:

“The low response rate is not due to a lack of interest by respondents, but rather is the product of the climate of fear that the DeSantis administration has engendered. When free speech is attacked, the willingness of people to express their views — even if they are supposedly anonymously reported — becomes stifled,” said University of Florida political science chair Dan Smith. “And this, of course, is what Governor DeSantis and his minions want: a quiescent population scared to speak out.”

This quote from Smith is so utterly stupid that it’s insulting to people’s intelligence. Fortunately, it’s easily debunked with a little bit of common sense. The fear he’s talking about is real, and its shown in the actual results of the survey. Does anyone seriously believe that liberal college students or professors are afraid to speak out these days? His own words prove the point. Dan Smith is figuratively spitting in our eyes and telling us it’s raining.

But enough about Smith’s honestly problem. Like most of the other examples, The Democrat’s story also completely ignores the underlying data from the 18,073 responses in the survey, while expending tremendous effort to report the contextless response rates on a school-by-school basis (read our summary of the survey’s findings, here).

Tampa Bay Times

Now it’s time to give credit where credit is due. While the Tampa Bay Times also included the “response rate” in its subheadline, their story at least reported some of the findings of the 18,073 responses. Of course, being the Times, they still framed the survey in a way that ignored the more alarming data. Here’s their lead:

In the first ever “intellectual freedom and viewpoint diversity” survey taken at Florida’s 12 public universities, 61% of students agreed that their campuses provided an environment for free expression of ideas, opinions and beliefs.

That’s certainly one way to look at it. We are, however, more concerned with the 40 percent of employees and 25 percent of students who are intimidated to express their views on campus. How odd that the Times doesn’t seem concerned enough to even mention them. But at least they actually reported on the data.

In Conclusion

Over the past several days, Florida’s mainstream media outlets have moved in complete lock-step to ignore a large trove of survey data, and then justified their intentional ignorance by focusing on the number of surveys that weren’t filled out. They used loaded language, assigned motives to vast numbers of students and employees they didn’t talk to and have no evidence to support, they quoted fake “experts” using made up explanations, and in some cases, the reporters themselves invented “facts” all on their own.

Even so, 18,073 people took the time to complete the survey and voice their concerns. The number of surveys that weren’t returned does not in any way invalidate any of the data that was collected.

5 Comments

  1. PaulG

    Another Right Wing chase down a rabbit hole! The actual number of students feeling intimidated is actually less than 1%, hardly alarming when there are so many on the Right who think it was okay to storm the nation’s capitol and that Trump actually won the election. Has Murdoch recently purchased The Capitolist? You’re sounding more and more like Faux News.

    Reply
    • Deborah Coffey

      Absolutely. When you’re THIS defensive, Brian…you’re most likely on the wrong side or, your publication was just plain wrong.

      Reply
  2. Marvin

    It is pretty basic that a credible poll has to randomly sample the population. The voluntary survey failed to do this basic action.

    The great majority of the student population notably including most politically conservative students boycotted the survey because it is an apparent ulterior motive tool of an agenda they do not support. What you have left – potentially – is a very small minority of discontents who want to complain no matter what and support that ulterior agenda.

    I am a huge supporter of free thought, debate and free speech definitely including conservative thought and definitely including college campuses. It is the temptation of any ideology with power including liberals to suppress its competition. (Conservatives, take note of any beams in personal optics.)

    A better use of the survey would be to check the unhappy responses for valid patterns of pernicious suppression of free thought, debate and speech regardless of viewpoint, and not just against conservatives. For example are there overly burdensome regulations about time, place and manner of speech. Then act to further buttress and support intellectual freedom on college campuses for everyone including political conservatives.

    Thus far nothing substantive has been advanced. As the old meme goes, where’s the beef?

    Reply
  3. John

    Blatant bias, willful media blindness in coverage of campus ideological freedom survey

    Brian, Your continued lies and disinformation about this survey may act as “red meat” for the maga-republicans you represent, but those that read the survey and your rant from yesterday understand why the media is not picking up on your spin. They recognize that the 2.4% of the students that responded to the survey is hardly representative of your overblown claims and the 0.67% of that number further diminishes your claim.

    Reply
  4. James

    It’s always good to hear what anyone who had been paying attention already knows.

    Reply

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