Media Matters studied one year of evening cable news programming on Fox News, MSNBC, and CNN to examine the types of discussions these shows featured about issues related to college affordability. Our research found that all three networks devoted limited time to discussing these issues, and that the majority of guests participating in the discussions were white, male, and middle-aged or older. A very small proportion of segments discussing topics related to college affordability mentioned recent, personal experiences paying for higher education.
Key Findings On Cable Evening News And Discussions Of College Affordability Issues
For the period beginning July 1, 2015, and ending June 30, 2016, Media Matters identified and analyzed all interview and guest panel segments on evening cable news programs that featured substantial discussion of college affordability issues, such as plans to reduce the cost of college attendance, reforms to make student loans more affordable, or the various individual or macroeconomic impacts of the current national student debt burden.
Media Matters found an overall lack of substantial discussions about issues related to college costs and student debt across all three cable news networks -- together, all three networks devoted 2 hours and 22 minutes to discussing college affordability in the year studied. Fox News’ and MSNBC’s evening news programs each spent a little under an hour discussing these topics, and CNN devoted just under 35 minutes. MSNBC’s Hardball, however, single-handedly accounted for just over a quarter of the total number of qualifying segments in this study.
Media Matters also found that networks featured predominantly white guests -- and significantly more male than female guests -- in interviews and panel discussions related to college affordability. More than three-quarters of guests invited to discuss these issues were at least 35 years old -- and 40 percent of them were 51 or older (of those guests whose ages were publicly available), though Fox News hosted substantially more millennial guests than the other networks did. Journalists formed the largest plurality of guests by profession, followed by political strategists (a category that also includes political consultants and campaign staffers). Only eight of the 127 total guests participating in these discussions in the year studied were identified as current students, and only three discussed their own current or recent experiences as student loan borrowers.
How Much Did The Networks Discuss College Affordability?
From July 1, 2015, to June 30, 2016, 56 total segments -- totaling 2 hours and 22 minutes -- across evening news programs on Fox News, CNN, and MSNBC featured substantial discussion of issues related to college costs or student debt.
Fox News and MSNBC ran almost the same number of segments discussing college affordability issues -- 24 and 23, respectively. CNN ran just nine segments featuring substantial discussion of these topics within the year-long scope.
Of these 56 total segments, 44 were larger, multitopic panel discussions or interviews in which at least two speakers discussed college affordability issues for a portion of the segment. Only 12 segments in the year-long period began with a student debt or college cost-related topic as the stated topic of discussion for the entire segment.
Fox News had the most segments explicitly devoted to college affordability topics (seven), followed by MSNBC (three), and then CNN (two). Fox News’ and MSNBC’s evening news programs each spent nearly one collective hour on college affordability discussions, while CNN spent just over half an hour.
MSNBC’s Hardball aired the most segments including substantial discussion of student debt or college costs among the cable evening news programs, with 15 total qualifying segments -- more than a quarter of the total included in the study. Fox News’ On the Record and The O’Reilly Factor each included eight qualifying segments.
Who Did The Networks Ask About College Affordability Issues?
Across all three networks, 127 guests participated in segments featuring substantial discussion of college affordability issues in the course of the year studied.
The majority of the guests across all three networks were male (58 percent) -- and white (73 percent). Gender representation for guests was relatively similar across all three networks. Racial and ethnic group representation varied slightly more among the three networks: CNN had a significantly smaller proportion of white guests and a larger proportion of black guests, but Asian-Americans and Hispanics were not represented on the network in these conversations. Fox News had the highest proportion of Hispanic guests (at 10 percent), though these appearances were almost exclusively made by network co-hosts Geraldo Rivera and Juan Williams on programs other than their own.
Media Matters also coded for each guest’s generational age, based on available information about each individual. Of the nearly 70 percent of total guests whose age was publicly accessible, the most represented generational groups were Generation X (35-50 in 2015) and Baby Boomers (51-69 in 2015). Together, 70 percent of guests were ages 35 to 69. Millennials (18-34 in 2015) accounted for 24 percent of the guest appearances in discussions of college affordability issues. Almost all millennial guests appeared on Fox News, while all three networks hosted nearly the same number of guests in the older age categories. (Generational age data, however, should be approached with some caution, as the ages of 32 percent of the total guests in the study -- already a small data set -- were not publicly accessible.)
The most represented profession, by far, among evening cable news guests discussing college affordability was journalists. Thirty-six percent of the total guests across all three networks primarily worked as television, print, or radio journalists. Thirteen percent were current or former elected or administration officials, 10 percent were political strategists, 6 percent were academics, and 6 percent were students. The proportion of each profession represented by guests varied widely across the three networks, and a large percentage of overall guests were recorded as having “other or undetermined” professions because of a single, 28-person panel of “GOP voters” that included a brief discussion of student loans on Fox News’ The Kelly File.
Over the year studied, a total of eight current students (6 percent of guests) made guest appearances on the three networks in the evening news segments that featured substantial discussion of college costs or student debt. All eight were guests on Fox News -- seven of them participants in three different segments on On the Record discussing the political leanings of millennials. The other student guest spoke for six seconds, asking Hannity host Sean Hannity about his views on college affordability in a 37-second segment. All but one of these students were white, and gender was evenly represented.
Just three of the 127 total guests (2 percent) participating in substantial discussions about college affordability were identified in the segment as current or recent student loan borrowers. In a June segment on CNN Tonight, former Trump University customer Sheri Winkelmann described the personal financial burdens she and other former students incurred to pay for Trump University seminars (this example, however, is unique among the segments in that Trump University was a real estate seminar business and never accredited as a school). In another segment, from Fox News’ Hannity last August, then-presidential candidate Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) mentioned that he had owed more than $100,000 in student loan debt in response to a question from Hannity about addressing national debt and other economic issues. The third guest to mention his or her current or recent personal experience borrowing money to pay for college was the aforementioned unnamed Hannity viewer who asked a six-second question.
What Did Guests Discuss About The Issue Of College Affordability?
In the 56 qualifying segments, the most frequently mentioned topics were possible solutions, or the need for solutions, to address the rising cost of attendance at institutions of higher education, often in conjunction with then-Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders’ (I-VT) proposal for tuition-free public college or in discussions comparing Sanders’ and Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton’s policy plans for making college more affordable. Thirty-seven percent of guests mentioned questions or statements related to this specific topic.
Twenty percent of guests discussed the macroeconomic impacts of rising college costs or the national student burden, referencing, for instance, data showing student debt surpassed all other types of household debt in the U.S. besides mortgages in 2012. Sixteen percent of guests discussed possible solutions, or the need for solutions, for existing student loan burdens. Just 11 percent of guests discussed individual examples of the real-world impact of student debt or rising college costs -- sharing their own experiences, those of other individuals, or hypothetical examples.
Of the 127 guests in the study, 71 guests -- 56 percent -- either made statements or responded to questions that specifically addressed a presidential candidate’s record, stances, or specific policy proposals related to college affordability or were themselves a candidate at the time of their appearance. Forty-one percent (52 guests) discussed Sanders’ record or policy stances on college affordability topics. About a quarter of the guests discussed Clinton’s record or policy stances on these issues, with many comparing the two then-candidates for the Democratic presidential nomination.
Eighty-two guests -- 65 percent -- spoke about any of the five specific topics related to college affordability that Media Matters measured:
- college costs, i.e., questions or statements related to the cost of attendance at institutions of higher education, rising tuition or “sticker prices,” or policies to make college more affordable for future students;
- student debt, i.e., questions or statements related to federal or private student loans, loan repayment and interest rates, student loan refinancing, student loan forgiveness, or policies to address student debt burdens for current students and borrowers;
- individual impacts of rising college costs or student debt, i.e., questions or statements related to personal, anecdotal, or hypothetical individual-level experiences with paying for college, taking out student loans of any kind, or navigating loan repayment, refinancing, or forgiveness;
- macroeconomic, large-scale impacts of rising college costs or student debt, i.e., questions or statements related to general economic consequences of the national student debt burden, or general social or emotional impacts of struggling to afford college; and
- a specific presidential candidate’s record, stances, or policy proposals related to college affordability, i.e., a policy proposal to reduce public college tuition, a proposal to refinance existing student loans, a candidate’s past statements about his or her own student loan debt, or a candidate’s record as a private citizen or a public servant related to college affordability. Additionally, we coded if the speaker was themselves a candidate at the time of their appearance.
Notably, of the 82 guests who spoke about these topics, 71 -- 87 percent -- discussed college affordability issues in conjunction with the records or stances of one or more presidential candidates. Fifty-seven percent discussed college costs, 32 percent discussed the macroeconomic impacts of student debt or rising college costs, 24 percent discussed possible solutions for climbing student debt, and 17 percent discussed specific individual impacts of struggling to pay for college.
Media Matters conducted a Nexis search of transcripts for evening programming on cable news channels Fox News, CNN, and MSNBC from July 1, 2015, through June 30, 2016, for mentions of any variations of the keywords college; student; school; university or universities; educate, education, or educator; degree; and graduate or graduation within 50 words of any variation of one of the following keywords: cost; affordable or affordability; tuition; debt; loan; and borrow or borrower.
We included the following programs in the data: CNN's The Situation Room with Wolf Blitzer, Erin Burnett Outfront, Anderson Cooper 360, and CNN Tonight with Don Lemon; MSNBC's Hardball with Chris Matthews, All In with Chris Hayes, The Rachel Maddow Show, and The Last Word with Lawrence O’Donnell; and Fox News Channel's Special Report with Bret Baier, On the Record with Greta Van Susteren, The O’Reilly Factor, The Kelly File, and Hannity. We did not include Fox News’ The Five in the study because of the show's substantially different format and because it rarely has guests.
For shows that air reruns, we included only the first airing in the data retrieval. For some dates, town hall events by presidential candidates or presidential primary debates pre-empted regular programming in whole or part. These events were not included as relevant segments, but discussions or interviews related to these events before or after their airing were included. Presidential town hall events presented as regular episodes of a program were also not included as relevant segments. Segments were also limited to interviews (live or pre-taped) and panel discussions. News packages, host monologues, and teasers for upcoming segments were not included.
For this study, Media Matters included only those discussion-based segments where the stated topic of discussion was college costs, student debt, or other issues related to college affordability, or where the segment contained “substantial discussion” about these topics. We defined “substantial discussion” as a portion of a segment in which at least two speakers raised questions or made statements directly addressing college affordability issues.
Qualifying segments were coded for timing. Media Matters reviewed and recorded time stamps for entire discussion-based segments when the stated topic of the segment was related to college affordability and for the portions of multitopic segments that featured substantial discussion of college affordability issues. Teasers, host monologues, news reports, and news packages introducing qualifying segments were not included in the final time count, as they do not constitute “discussion.” Commercial breaks were also not included in this count.
For the purposes of this study, Media Matters defined a “guest” as any individual not affiliated with the program who was introduced and shown on camera during a segment in which substantial discussion of college affordability occurred. Program hosts, guest hosts, and network correspondents were not counted as guests, except in instances where a network host or correspondent appeared on a program other than their own specifically to engage in discussion (as opposed to delivering straight reporting). Individuals who did not engage in discussion of college affordability issues but participated in a larger, multitopic discussion that touched on these topics (such as a large panel) were counted as relevant guests, as they had the opportunity to discuss college affordability topics. Guest appearances were counted only once per segment.
We coded all guests in a qualifying segment by name; gender; race and/or ethnicity; profession; generational age; whether they identified themselves as a current or recent student loan borrower; and what specific topics related to college affordability they discussed. Guests could be coded as belonging to more than one racial or ethnic group, or coded as “undetermined” if their racial/ethnic background was not publicly available through self-identifying statements, personal websites and social media, or media profiles. Similarly, guests’ ages were determined through a good faith search of publicly available information from personal online profiles and media profiles. We were able to determine 68 percent of guests’ ages through these means. We defined the age generations using Pew Research Center guidelines: The millennial generation included guests who were ages 18-34 in 2015, Generation X included guests ages 35-50 in 2015, Baby Boomers included guests ages 51-69 in 2015, and the Silent Generation included guests ages 70-87 in 2015.
We used two independent coders to review segments and determine whether a guest identified him- or herself or was introduced in the course of the segment as a current or recent student loan borrower (having paid off loans within the last five years). It is possible some guests are current or recent student loan borrowers but are not included in this count, as they were not identified as such in the segment, and guests’ personal financial information is not typically publicly accessible.
We also used two independent coders in reviewing all relevant segments to determine whether each guest spoke about the following topics related to college affordability:
- college costs, i.e. questions or statements related to the cost of attendance at institutions of higher education, rising tuition or “sticker prices,” or policies to make college more affordable for future students;
- student debt, i.e. questions or statements related to federal or private student loans, loan repayment and interest rates, student loan refinancing, student loan forgiveness, or policies to address student debt burdens for current students and borrowers;
- individual impacts of college costs or student debt, i.e. questions or statements related to personal, anecdotal, or hypothetical individual-level experiences with paying for college, taking out student loans of any kind, or navigating loan repayment, refinancing, or forgiveness;
- macroeconomic, large-scale impacts of college costs or student debt, i.e. questions or statements related to general economic consequences of the national student debt burden, or general social or emotional impacts of struggling to afford college.
Guests could be coded as discussing more than one of the above topics in a single segment.
Media Matters also reviewed segments for guest discussion of specific presidential candidates' records, stances, or policy proposals on issues related to college affordability. Guests were coded if they made any statement referring specifically to an individual candidate's record or policy proposals on any college affordability issue (e.g. plans to subsidizing college tuition, plans to reform student loans, past experiences with higher education costs), or if they directly responded to a question or assertion from another guest about a specific candidate. Guests could be coded for making statements about more than one candidate in a single segment. Guests who were also presidential candidates at the time of their appearances could be coded for making statements about their own records or stances on college affordability issues, as well as for making similar statements about other candidates. These guests were additionally coded as presidential candidates. A second coder was used for accuracy in making these determinations.
Rob Savillo helped shape the research design of this study, and Tyler Cherry and Bobby Lewis contributed to its implementation with segment review and coding. All graphics were made by Sarah Wasko.