Liberty University and all those Pell Grants: Is this a topic for news or opinion?


Over the years, your GetReligionistas have developed some logos to signal to readers that there are certain types of stories that we critique over and over and over. No, we haven't created a Kellerism logo yet, but who knows?

The "Got news?" logo us used when we see a really interesting news story in alternative media and, as veteran reporters, we think to ourselves, "Why the heck isn't anyone in the mainstream press covering that interesting (and in some cases major) story?"

Then there is the logo out front on this post, which says, "What is this?" If you read news online, you know that we are in an age in which the lines between hard news and commentary are getting thinner and thinner. Frequently, I see pieces marked "analysis" that contain far more clear attributions and sources than in "hard news" stories elsewhere. We regularly see "news" features that, a decade ago, would have been featured on op-ed pages.

Then there is the whole issue of hard-news reporters writing "objective" stories and then turning around and firing away on Twitter with edgy comments that would make an editorial-page editor blush. The goal, for many reporters, is to build an online "brand" and one way you do that is by telling readers what you really think.

Then there is that other nasty equation looming in the background during these financially troubled times in the journalism. You know the one: Opinion is cheep; information is expensive.

This brings me to a really interesting "Acts of Faith" piece at The Washington Post that ran under this headline: "Liberty University, a hub of conservative politics, owes rapid growth to federal student loans." The key is that Liberty University -- founded by the late Rev. Jerry Falwell -- now has the largest student body of any private nonprofit university in America, with 70,000 students (counting online students).

Now that's a really interesting story, in fact it's several interesting stories. There's the growth of this conservative school, period. There's the question of whether online schools mesh well with traditional analog education. And then there is a perfectly valid angle that is, well, especially interesting in the wake of that 5-4 U.S. Supreme Court decision on same-sex marriage.

No, not the issue of same-sex partners on the Liberty faculty or on campus. We're talking about the question of Liberty's tax status.

That's a hot topic and, as I read this piece, I kept waiting for voices representing the university and/or Christian higher education, in general. They never showed up. In part, because the essay never openly plays the Obergefell card. But read this chunk of material and see if you think that topic is on the mind of at least one Post editor:

The irony: The exponential growth of Liberty University has been fueled by billions in federal student aid made possible by President Obama and congressional Democrats.
Fifteen years ago, Liberty had 5,939 undergraduate students and 735 graduate students. Last fall, the university enrolled 49,744 undergraduates and 31,715 graduate students.
Most of the university’s dramatic growth has come through distance education, and its online students now make up most of Liberty’s student body. Three-quarters of undergraduates and 97 percent of graduate students at Liberty study exclusively through distance education, according the American Federation of Teachers.
But more astounding than the growth in students is the growth in federal aid. Data from the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia shows that federal aid has grown five times faster than enrollment. In the late 1990s, Liberty students received less than $20 million in aid. Students now receive over $800 million dollars a year in federal aid.

Let me stress that this is a completely valid hook for a news story. But is that what this piece actually is? The further I read into it, the more confused I became. What is this?

Then I looked again at the byline and realized that, while this is a topic worthy of a hard-news story built on input from experts and insiders on both sides of this issue, this essay was actually an example of what some people call "reported blogging." The story looked like news, but it wasn't "news."

In other words, this was an opinion or analysis piece that happened to contain some reported information, from sources on one side of the topic. The author is not a reporter, but a highly qualified professor and scribe from a state university (in other words, from a branch of higher education in which many leaders view religious schools such as Liberty as second-rate competition).

My question is the same as always: This is a great topic. Why not write a solid, balanced news piece about it? Why not allow Liberty leaders to offer their point of view? Or, if the goal is op-ed writing, why not clearly label this piece as opinion or analysis. Just asking.

Anyone want to propose a theory or two? In mean, other than this one: Opinion is cheep; information is expensive.

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