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Andrea Austria / Media Matters

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America’s most-read newspapers did a poor job covering the likely consequences of SCOTUS overturning affirmative action

On June 29, the Supreme Court struck down affirmative action in higher education. America’s largest newspapers did a poor job explaining the potential consequences of ending the policy and the right-wing lobbying effort that spent years trying to get this decision.

In two related cases brought forth by anti-civil rights strategist Edward Blum the court effectively ruled race-conscious affirmative action violates the equal-protection clause of the 14th Amendment as the admission policies of Harvard and the University of North Carolina “unavoidably employ race in a negative manner.”

The decision was a radical departure from decades of precedent.

Since 1978, the court has ruled that universities have a compelling interest in creating diverse student bodies. And affirmative action allows for the maintenance of some diversity. States that have previously ended affirmative action, such as California, have seen declining diversity in higher education.

Additionally, while considering race has been essentially outlawed, considering legacy has not. The court did not touch legacy admissions, which allow colleges to privilege applicants whose parents attended their institutions.

America’s top five newspapers in terms of circulation — The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, the Los Angeles Times, and USA Today — published 38 articles in their print editions about the court overturning affirmative action from June 29 through July 5.

  • Only 32% of articles mentioned that the Supreme Court effectively overturned decades of precedent on affirmative action

  • 32% of articles (12 of 38) characterized the court’s ruling on affirmative action as radical or a departure from decades of precedent-setting rulings supporting affirmative action. The Washington Post had the most mentions (5). The New York Times (2), The Wall Street Journal (2), the LA Times (2), and USA Today (1) trailed behind with under 3 mentions each.

    Since 1978’s Regents v. Bakke decision, which rejected racial quotas but allowed consideration of race in admissions, the Supreme Court has consistently ruled that colleges and universities can consider an applicant’s race because of the nation’s compelling interest in student body diversity. With few exceptions, the justices have generally upheld narrowly tailored affirmative action policies, including in 2003’s Grutter v. Bollinger decision and 2015’s Fisher v. University of Texas.

    In this year’s Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard and Students for Fair Admissions v. University of North Carolina, the court reversed its position, ruling 6-3 that by considering an applicant’s race, the universities violated the 14th Amendment.

  • 26% of pieces mentioned the role that legacy admissions have played in the college admissions process

  • Both affirmative action cases renewed the debate over legacy admissions, which give preferential admissions treatment to alumni family members. Only 26% of articles (10 out of 38) mentioned legacy admissions and how the practice contributes to inequality by privileging well-connected, wealthy, and primarily white families over other applicants.

    Affirmative action and legacy admissions have both been criticized for allegedly privileging one group of applicants over another. However, unlike affirmative action, debates over the college admissions process have largely ignored legacy admissions. This may change after civil rights groups filed a complaint on July 3 challenging legacy admissions at Harvard on the grounds that the practice discriminates against students of color.

  • 45% of articles mentioned that the ending of affirmative action will likely result in a decline in enrollment rates among students of color

  • Multiple studies have shown that a ban on affirmative action will likely result in lower enrollment rates for students of color. Additionally, top state schools in California and Michigan, which already have statewide bans on affirmative action, have seen large drops in enrollment rates among multiple minority groups. 

    However, just under half of articles printed in America’s major newspapers (17 out of 38) mentioned that the nationwide death of affirmative action is expected to result in a large-scale decline in students of color attending select higher education institutions. 

    The New York Times published 6 articles mentioning declining enrollment rates, The Washington Post published 5, The Wall Street Journal published 3, USA Today published 2, and the LA Times published 1.

  • Only 18% of articles mentioned the conservative activist behind the legal attacks on affirmative action

  • Only 18% of articles (7 out of 38) mentioned the conservative activist working to overturn affirmative action: Edward Blum

    Blum spent the last two decades attacking race-conscious college admissions policies with the help of conservative dark money. Blum and his group Students for Fair Admissions aggressively recruited potential plaintiffs who said they were denied admissions to elite universities because of affirmative action — even setting up websites like to solicit teenagers for this purpose. 

    When articles did mention Blum, they were short, but accurate. A June 30 Washington Post article acknowledged that his group had “an explicit agenda: to end racial preferences in admissions.” However, these mentions were few and far between. The Washington Post and USA Today mentioned Blum in 2 articles each, while the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and Los Angeles Times only mentioned Blum in 1 article each.

  • Methodology

  • Media Matters searched articles in the Factiva database for all print articles from The New York Times, The Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, The Wall Street Journal, and USA Today for any of the terms “Harvard,” “North Carolina,” or “Supreme Court” within the same headline or lead paragraphs as any of the terms “affirmative action,” “legacy,” “merit,” “admission,” “race,” or “equal protection” or any variation of the term “discriminate” from June 29, 2023, when the Supreme Court ruled on the affirmative action cases, through July 5, 2023.

    We included articles, which we defined as instances when either Supreme Court case, Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard or Students for Fair Admissions v. University of North Carolina, was mentioned in the headline or lead paragraph.

    We then reviewed the identified articles for whether they mentioned the role that legacy admissions have played in the college admissions process, suggested that eliminating affirmative action will decrease college admissions for students of color, mentioned Edward Blum’s role in the suit or his long history of trying to end affirmative action, or mentioned that the decision is a radical departure from decades of precedent.