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Mirroring the Powerful They Often Cover, Major Newspapers Dominated by Graduates of Elite Schools, Study Finds

Social networks students obtain upon entry to schools like Harvard and Yale help to secure a path to jobs at influential media outlets

A new study offers data to support the commonly-held notion that elite media organizations draw from elite universities in hiring staff, likely contributing to an insular worldview. (Photo: Jens Schott Knudsen/Flickr/cc)

A recent study offers data to support the commonly-held notion that the news media are staffed largely by Americans from "elite" educational backgrounds—likely placing serious limits on the perspective top news outlets are able to offer about the nation and people on which they are tasked with reporting.

Researchers from Psychology Today and the Autism and Developmental Medicine Institute analyzed the universities and colleges attended by nearly 2,000 employees of the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, finding that significant portions of the staff attended one of 29 schools classified as elite.

The schools, including Harvard, MIT, Yale, Princeton, and Stanford, had the highest median SAT scores in the country—but many factors keep students with high levels of cognitive ability from achieving high scores on SAT's, and out of the nation's most selective schools.

"There are cognitively elite students at many schools; they just cluster in numbers in the ones we identified obviously," Kaja Perina, one of the study's authors, told The Intercept. "The fact is the combination of social networks plus high ability tends to get these people out of the Ivy Leagues and into these top papers with much more frequency."

According to the study, about 44 percent of Times employees attended "elite" schools, while nearly 50 percent of those at the Journal went to one of the 29 top colleges.


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Fifty-two and 54 percent of the papers' writing staff, respectively, were educated at one of the top-tier institutions, and nearly a third of the Journal and Times editorial staffers attended Ivy League schools.

The elite environments in which these journalists were educated differs vastly from the average education obtained by the Americans that the papers are tasked with covering. According to the Department of Education, only four percent of Americans attend very selective universities that accept 25 percent of applicants or less. Fewer than one percent are educated at the most selective schools like Harvard and Yale, whose acceptance rates are around 10 percent.

Reed Richardson, writing on the study for Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR) in March, observed:

The survey reveals how the staffs of the Times and Journal are starkly different than typical journalists. The findings also tell us a lot about how reporters and editors from these two news organizations cover the powerful, as well as why their coverage often falls short of holding the powerful to account.
The reality is that the average New York Times reporter shares much more in the way of educational and cultural background with those they cover than with the general public. Or, as the study found: "Elite journalists resemble senators, billionaires and World Economic Forum attendees in terms of educational attainment."

Meanwhile, while the number of Americans who go to college is on the rise, only about 33 percent of American adults have completed a bachelor's degree or higher, according to Census data. The cost of education keeps many colleges out of reach for lower- and middle-income families, with the Institute for Higher Education Policy showing that students from these households can afford to attend just one to five percent of institutions in the country.

"The homogeneity of perspectives and experiences in a newsroom can have the effect of limiting a newsroom's scope of reporting," wrote Zaid Jilani at The Intercept. "Newsrooms that are truly committed to reflecting the diversity of the society they cover may want to consider interviewing a few more applicants who went to state schools...before making hiring decisions."

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