While academics often must push for their research to be publicized by news outlets, criticisms of mainstream media and the growth of informal social platforms have broadened the opportunities for academics to enter public discourse on current issues. University professors have accumulated upwards of 3 million followers on platforms such as Twitter—where their controversial ideas garner political attention and even become virally distributed.
According to historians and researchers of media, however, the use of academics as expert sources has become increasingly complicated. While academics—especially those affiliated with big-name universities—are known as representatives of their respective fields, with their expertise affording them unparalleled credibility, Yale, Stanford, and Harvard have all publicly distanced themselves from faculty who they believe advocate for positions that are not substantiated through research in the field.
These faculty, including current Trump advisor Dr. Scott Atlas of Stanford Medical School, have publicly used their expertise to justify unproven claims surrounding COVID-19, such as the use of Hydroxychloroquine as a cure.
Media historian Michael Socolow, CC ’91, noted that academics have not been cited as frequently as public intellectuals in the media as much as veteran journalist-turned-pundits. However, he said that scholars and their universities are meant to have a symbiotic relationship in which both benefit from public exposure.
“The university pays academics and academics use the name of the university to spread research. The tenants or the protection of academic freedom are incredibly important in that they allow professors to use expertise in the public,” Socolow says. “The question is then, who in the public can judge that expertise?”
Last May, Donald Trump’s campaign manager retweeted a video where a professor at the School of Social Work, Anthony Zenkus, made claims that incited conversation across the political aisle. Through a montage of videos of presidential nominee Joe Biden, Zenkus narrates his observations of predatory behavior and justifies them with the claim, “I am an expert in the fields of sexual violence family violence, and trauma.”
The video was first posted on a progressive content account popular among liberal audiences for criticizing the Democratic leadership’s support for Biden despite his numerous accusations of sexual assault. On the right, the video served to elevate Trump’s candidacy even though Trump himself has an extensive history of accusations.
In this case, Zenkus' work was not published in full, nor had he offered statements in follow-up articles regarding the video. However, he has continued to justify his stance and criticize Biden supporters in public tweets from his account. In response, numerous users have expressed outrage over his following and use of the Columbia name to bolster his credibility.
One such Twitter user includes Allison Reid, an actress from Toronto, who expressed her disapproval of Zenkus' criticism of Biden in a public exchange with the professor. In response to Reid’s tweets, Zenkus attempted to discredit her by establishing that supporting Biden would be equivalent to “rape apology.” Citing Zenkus' tweet and his apparent expertise in the field, other Twitter users mocked Reid’s status as a sexual assault survivor.
“I’m not opposed to debates on social media. I challenge people’s views and welcome them to be challenged. That’s what activism on social media is all about,” Reid said. “Zenkus bills himself as a [professor] and social worker that understands and helps sexual assault survivors. But if a sexual assault survivor has a different view than he does, even if they present it in a civil manner, he bullies them and tacitly approves of verbal abuse.”
She reached out to Zenkus, but after hearing no response, she and other users wrote to Dean of the Social Work School Melissa D. Begg, about their experiences engaging with his content—which has been made visible through both right wing and liberal media outlets. Reed said she has yet to hear back.
As academics leverage their expertise to enter political discourse, journalists also depend on experts to bolster the credibility of their own reporting. Kevin Lerner, professor of communications at Marist College and a contributor to The Conversation, a network of media outlets that publish stories authored by academics and researchers, pointed to an inherent bias in media’s use of academic experts.
Lerner said that the main dilemma for journalists is the inability to quote everyone, as there is a “selection process” involved in producing a story. For this reason, he said that objectivity is far from possible when media outlets not only curate what the news will be, but also what voices will be heard.
According to Lerner, a closer examination of the identity of the “expert” and what interests they represent would allow for more transparency, especially when the editor is able to acknowledge the context in which the source exists.
While Socolow said there is a push in journalism to hire reporters with specialized areas of knowledge, the limitations become more dire in local news stations where staff may be spread thin through a variety of beats.
“Journalists aren’t necessarily trained to evaluate scholarship or academic expertise, so this remains a major journalistic problem with every complex issue, from climate change to the science of the COVID-19 pandemic,” Socolow said.