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In a few short weeks, voters in Michigan will vote on the ballot measure known as the Michigan Civil Rights Initiative (MCRI). In so doing, they will get to decide whether to eliminate affirmative action in public higher education admissions and government contracting in their state. In itself, the vote may not be cause for alarm.

What is alarming is that unless they have made the effort to take time out from their busy lives to learn about the myriad pros and cons of affirmative action and the latest research findings regarding the meaning of equality of opportunity and the benefits of a culturally diverse student body and workforce, most Michigan voters will be voting for or against affirmative action based either on their initial intuitions or on information provided by the media. Maybe even that does not seem alarming. But it should.

The decision over MCRI will have significant ramifications not only for people in Michigan, but also for people across the United States. For if it passes, there are likely to be other anti-affirmative action ballot measures placed on the ballots of states that allow such referendums. We could argue about whether it is wise for voters at large to have such authority, but that is not the point here. We are concerned by an issue that Michigan’s debate over MCRI brings up: If members of the voting public have the power to enact public policy, how are they getting the information on which they base their opinions about the issues and their subsequent voting decisions? And further, what sort of information are they getting? Our research on these issues shows that voters are not getting much substantive information on MCRI from news articles.

In the course of investigating the persistent disagreement about affirmative action after the University of Michigan Supreme Court cases, we noticed what appeared to be a disturbing trend within the print news media’s coverage of affirmative action and MCRI. It seemed to us that instead of writing about the deeper moral issues surrounding race-conscious policies like affirmative action, print news pieces focused on covering more sensational aspects related to the aftermath of the Michigan Supreme Court cases and the campaign for MCRI.

By moral issues, we mean, for example, issues having to do with the history of affirmative action in the United States, the multifaceted pros and cons of affirmative action, the impact of previous, similar initiatives in other states, and evidence from research on concepts such as diversity and merit and equality of educational opportunity. 

We realize that it is often the case that in elections, the news media tend to pay more attention to the “horse race” between candidates than to the actual issues at stake. Nevertheless, there seems to be something qualitatively different about an election focused on a public policy issue. What else is there to cover if not the issues up for debate?

Moreover, MCRI does not venture into unfamiliar territory. The initiative arises from a distinct -- and rather disgraceful -- legacy. In 1996, California voters approved Proposition 209, a ballot initiative nearly identical to MCRI. In the years since its passage, California has experienced sharp declines in the number of black and Latino students applying and admitted to state universities, a decrease in the number of contracts awarded to minority-owned businesses and minority contractors, and a significant drop in the number of enrolled minority students at prestigious state law schools. Given all we know about the great academic and social benefits of maintaining a diverse classroom and workplace -- benefits affirmed by the Supreme Court in its 2003 decision in Grutter, the passage of Proposition 209 has been a defeat for all Californians. Now that we have evidence of the effects of passing these so-called Civil Rights Initiatives to abolish affirmative action, shouldn’t such information be a clear part of the public debate?

In order to find out what sorts of information potential voters have been receiving about MCRI, we decided to conduct a systematic study of what information the print news media have provided to the public regarding MCRI and the affirmative action debate in the years since the Michigan ballot initiative campaign first was announced in 2003. We read some 280 articles -- all that we could find -- from print news media and Internet sources between June 2003 and October 2006 that mentioned MCRI. Our sources included national newspapers such as The New York Times; both partisan and nonpartisan magazines such as Time, National Review and The Nation; major local newspapers such as The Detroit News and Detroit Free Press; other local papers such as Lansing State Journal and The Grand Rapids Press; campus papers such as the University of Michigan's The Michigan Daily and Michigan State University's The State News; and Internet and education news sources (including Inside Higher Ed).

We looked for evidence that the public was receiving meaningful, substantive information. Substance comes in many forms -- we consider an article substantive if it cites any scholarly research on the costs and benefits of affirmative action or implications of affirmative action policies; provides some historical, political or philosophical context of MCRI; or explains beyond superficialities the rationales for and against affirmative action.

Using these (relatively lax) standards, we found that fewer than 13 percent of all print and online news media articles provided any substantive information. For the most part, articles about MCRI did not include any mention of the available scholarly research on the impact of diversity and the implications of anti-affirmative action measures. Nor did they provide the reader with any historical, political or philosophical context -- pro or con -- for evaluating the policy. They tended to report the day-to-day incidents in the progression of MCRI.

Some of these stories may have been exciting -- such as the extensive coverage of reports that an MCRI opponent pulled a knife on MCRI’s director, Jennifer Gratz -- but they hardly provide the reader with any meaningful information on which to base an important vote. Most articles centered on less substantive issues like the campaign to get the initiative on the ballot, whether the petitions were valid, or whether local politicians and business leaders supported the initiative. Perhaps the news media believe that they are merely being neutral on the issue.

However, as the Supreme Court decision in Grutter showed through its extensive citations of social science research, the more meaningful information that is available, the more likely people are to understand the complex and important educational benefits of diversity that are fostered by affirmative action. When the press provides information that is not substantive, this has a more negative impact on affirmative action policies.

As state ballot initiative processes become increasingly prominent in elections and public policy decisions, do voters have public opportunities to become informed about the relevant policy issues? Are higher education researchers able to bring their research findings to bear on public debates? And ultimately is deliberative democracy being served?

When individuals vote on ballot initiatives that enact public policy, they are participating in the most direct form of democracy. As such, they should have the opportunity to engage in substantial and meaningful reflection and deliberation over the issues on which they vote. This, in its truest sense, is what we call democratic deliberation. A deliberative democracy, we believe, offers the best chance at resolving persistent moral disagreements, such as those that accompany affirmative action policy. Participation in democratic deliberation requires that individuals be well informed on the policy issues that affect them. For many voters, much information they get on policy issues comes from the print news media. Of course, many people don’t read newspapers; however, readership is correlated with increased voting. Therefore, the quality of democratic deliberation depends in part on the quality of information appearing in newspapers, both the paper and online versions.

We are not attempting to vilify the news media here, for they are only partially responsible for providing the people with meaningful information on important policy debates. Higher education researchers and other stakeholders have a significant responsibility to actively bring their research and viewpoints to bear on relevant education policy issues as well. Unfortunately this is not happening in any significant way; our research shows that fewer than 7 percent of the articles in our database even referred to scholarly research at all.

So, in the case of ballot initiatives against affirmative action, what can researchers and stakeholders do to get their ideas known and understood, if they can't count on the press? This question is certainly not new, but it is becoming more significant now, as controversial issues of education policy are increasingly being decided by voters via the ballot measure process. Beyond education policy, voters this year are charged with deciding many important public policy issues, like, for instance the stem cell research measure on Missouri ballots.

Rather than write the media off, it is up to us to develop relationships with members of the press and hold them responsible for the information they provide to the public. Researchers in particular can make a concerted effort to follow education policy debates related to their research, monitor the media coverage of such issues, and when they notice a lack of substantive information, be proactive in doing what they can to communicate their research in accessible and meaningful ways, free of jargon and overly complicated theoretical explanations.

Other stakeholders, outside of education research, can participate in the public debate as well, by talking about personal experiences that would shed light. For example, faculty and administrative staff upset about the implication that all minority students are not deserving could share their experiences with talented minority students in classes and on campus or talk about the differential impact of teaching classes where all students share the same socioeconomic or racial background compared to classes with a more diverse make-up.

Actions would include contributing letters to the editor and op-ed pieces whenever relevant. In addition, researchers and other stakeholders can maintain close contact with local or university media relations offices to make sure that they learn the most effective means of communicating their ideas to the media and the larger public. The key here is that in order to foster the public deliberation over controversial political issues required by a deliberative democratic society, the news media, education researchers, and other stakeholders need to be linked in providing important information to the public regarding education policy issues up for popular vote. Researchers often have the empirical evidence that can help bring substance to policy debates and the news media have the means to publicize substantive policy information. They ought to be working together to see that relevant ideas -- ideas that are based in research and at least somewhat transcend partisan political bickering -- get to the voting public.

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