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Americans worry about the cost of college, but cable networks don’t seem to care

Cable news networks devote little airtime to issues of college affordability, despite public interest, says Media Matters. (Photo by iStock)

Cable news networks devote little airtime to issues of college affordability, and when they do, their guests are primarily white, male and middle-aged or older, not reflecting the realities of higher education, according to a study released Wednesday by Media Matters for America.

The media watchdog combed through a year’s worth of transcripts for evening programming on Fox News, CNN and MSNBC, analyzing interviews and guest panel segments on college costs, student debt or other issues related to the affordability of higher education. Researchers found all three networks spent a total of two hours and 22 minutes discussing these issue from July 1, 2015 to June 30, 2016.

Fox News and MSNBC each spent a little less than an hour discussing college affordability on their evening shows that year, while CNN set aside roughly 35 minutes, according to the report. All told, the networks aired 56 segments on the issue, just 12 of which were exclusively about the cost of college or student debt.

None of the networks immediately responded to requests for comment.

“People who are paying down student debt, still in school or sending a child to college are really interested in these conversations,” said Pam Vogel, education program director at Media Matters. “Perhaps viewers would demand even more coverage of rising college costs, if they understood the actual parameters of the problem.”

How student debt became a presidential campaign issue

Media Matter’s studied a period of time during which the $1.3 trillion burden of student debt emerged as an issue in the presidential campaign. Republican contenders, including New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.) and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, framed the issue as a barrier to economic mobility on the campaign trail as they were peppered with questions from young voters. Democratic candidates Hillary Clinton and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) issued competing proposals to cover tuition at public colleges, reduce interest rates student loans and increase federal grant aid.

Yet the political and public discourse garnered minimal attention from the major cable news networks, according to the Media Matters study. MSNBC’s Hardball dedicate the most amount of time examining the significance of higher education in the race for the Democratic nomination. The show accounted for more than a quarter of the total number of segments in the study.

When cable news shows aired segments on higher education costs, Media Matters noted that they featured predominantly white guests, most of whom were men. CNN had a larger proportion of African American guests than the other networks, but no Asian Americans or Hispanics. Conversely, Fox News had the highest proportion of Hispanic guests at 10 percent, but those people were almost exclusively the hosts of other network shows appearing as guests, such as Geraldo Rivera. More than three-quarters of guests speaking about the topic were at least 35 years old, with 40 percent of them 51 or older, according to the study.

In contrast, the latest data from the New York Federal Reserve shows that 65 ­­percent of student loans are held by Americans younger than 39, while another study from Demos found that African Americans are borrowing at higher rates than other racial groups.

“They are leaving this vacuum for guests or hosts to have these conversations, and their point of reference is when they attended college in the 1980s,” Vogel said. “You need guests who can interject and say ‘Hey, it’s unreasonable to assume that in 2016 students can work a part-time job and pay for college.’ Without them, you’re going to continue to hear the same inaccurate points.”

Vogel said networks could do a better job of having people affected by the high cost of college share their experiences and insights. Fox News hosted more millennial guests that the other two networks, and had the highest number of segments specifically devoted to college affordability.

Just eight of the 127 guests featured in discussions on all three networks identified as current students, and just three discussed their own experiences as borrowers, according to the study. One of those three people was Rubio, mentioning on Fox News’ Hannity that he once owed more than $100,000 in student loans, while another was a Trump University customer describing the financial strain of paying for the seminars on CNN Tonight.

“It helps to hear about what someone’s balance is, how much they’re paying a month or how costs factored into their decisions,” Vogel said. “Having people in the position to share those experiences and interject to keep misinformation from flowing into another segment is critical.”

The Media Matters report arrives on the heels of two surveys that show Americans are concerned about making college more affordable. Eighty percent of registered voters polled by Hart Research Associates on behalf of Demos said the country needs to return to the days when students could afford to go to a state college without amassing debt. Public Agenda, a think tank, found that two-thirds of Americans support using taxpayer money to make public colleges free for low- and middle-income students.

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