Saturday, April 25, 2009

The "Seventh-day Adventist college"

I have made a conscious effort not to blog about my alma mater, Atlantic Union College. Over the last year a handful of items in the news have frustrated and angered me, but I’ve decided not to write about them because I know and love too many of the people at the college. I don’t go public with my frustrations because I value those relationships. Let’s just say I’m not happy about this or this or this and leave it at that.

But one of the things I have noted as I read coverage of the college in the Telegram and Gazette is that it is almost always identified as a “Seventh-day Adventist college.” Whether it is good news or bad news (and recently, it’s been a lot of bad news) doesn’t matter, the T&G includes the church as an identifier.

It has always stuck out to me. I don’t know if it is included because the T&G thinks the religious affiliation of the college is important, because they think the average reader doesn’t know of the affiliation, or if there is another reason, but it is nearly always there.

I decided to compare the T&G’s coverage of AUC with its coverage of Anna Maria College in Paxton. I chose Anna Maria because it is similar to AUC in three ways: it is a religious school (Catholic), it is a small college (not as small as AUC, but smaller than other religious schools in the area—Holy Cross, Assumption), and it is not located in Worcester, but in one of the outlying towns. In my comparison, I included articles about the colleges that were written by T&G staff and editorials. I did not include press releases or articles from the sports section.

I found that The T&G refers to AUC and Anna Maria very differently. In 17 articles about AUC, 15 of them (88%) referred to the college as a Seventh-day institution. There was no consistency in the placement of the reference—sometimes it was referenced in the lead but more often the reference was added later in the story—but it was consistently there.

In contrast, of 13 articles about Anna Maria College, the institution was only specifically referred to as Catholic three times (23%). There were a couple of occasions where the reference was not specific but a reader might infer the affiliation (by the mention of a bishop, for instance), but generally speaking, the college’s religious affiliation was not included.

Now, I don't know if this is a T&G policy or if it is simply the preference of Karen Nugent, the reporter the T&G has assigned to the Clinton/Lancaster area. On the one hand 88% is pretty consistent, one could argue that the paper clearly has a policy it uses in referring to AUC's affiliation. On the other hand, the only two articles that do not reference Seventh-Day Adventists were two of the three articles written by reporters other than Nugent. In other words, Nugent is 14-for-14 in including the reference, other reporters are only 1-for-3 in including the reference.

Let's look at how different writers reference the college in articles written about the same event. On August 6, 2008, Nugent wrote about an oil spill that took place at AUC:
LANCASTER - Diesel fuel that leaked from a generator at Atlantic Union College Monday was contained before it reached the nearby Nashua River, a state Department of Environmental Protection spokesman said yesterday.

Between 300 and 500 gallons of fuel used by college generators to produce electricity and hot water at the Seventh-day Adventist college were discharged when a gasket in one of the generators broke, spokesman Edmund J. Colletta said.
Matthew Bruun filed this report last month, outlining the action taken against the college:
LANCASTER - Atlantic Union College is facing steep penalties from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in connection with an oil spill last summer that polluted a brook feeding the Nashua River.

The EPA is seeking penalties of up to $177,500 against the college for violating the Clean Water Act, and additional penalties of up to $32,500 per day for violating the Emergency Planning and Right to Know Act, according to a news release issued yesterday.
I can't say for sure, but I'm guessing that Nugent would have written "The EPA is seeking penalties of up to $177,500 against the Seventh-day Adventist college" had she been the one to file the story. When the Clinton Item covered this story, they omitted the religious reference; articles in the Lancaster Times and Clinton Courier also did not find the church affiliation germane.

Again, I'm not sure why Nugent, who I have written about before, always includes the reference. Is it because she finds the affiliation important to the subject of the articles? If so, her colleagues and competitors do not agree. Is it because she thinks AUC is small and obscure enough that most readers won't know what it is without an identifier? Perhaps, but the college has been around since 1882, it's probably well enough established by now. Does she think that Adventists are peculiar? Well, she wouldn't be the only one.

Maybe I should begin referring to the T&G as "a New York-owned publication."

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