What Gets Left Out and What Stays In: Reflections on Storytelling
Posted on March 28, 2019
When reporters reach out and tell us they are doing a story about SNHU, we always open our doors, welcome them in, and give them as much accurate information as we can. While not everyone agrees with me that we should do so (call it basic mistrust of the media), I have always felt that A) if they are going to tell our story with or without our participation, it’s better to at least give them good information in the hopes they get it right and B) we have a story of which we are justifiably proud.
Also, I like journalists and believe most of them want to tell a story fairly and honestly. Many years ago I was a stringer for the Westfield Evening News and later a summer reporter for the Palmer Journal (and editor of my college newspaper). I read four papers each day (yep, still in print copy) and I’m a news junkie and I have enormous respect for the work of journalists. In these times in which we live, I think their job is more important than ever.
But every time someone does a story on us, I brace myself for that first reading. How will they frame the story? What will they get right, wrong, or at least incomplete? Writers have word limits and must make tough choices, but those choices inevitably shape the narrative. Even when the reporter nails it, an editor can make changes or leave important elements on the cutting room floor. I was wide awake at 6 a.m. today (I am usually anyway) and eager to read the story from Forbes when it went live.
So, what do I think?
The story is fine and largely accurate in terms of facts. I think it is also a fair story, which is all one can hope for in the end. But it’s the choice of what to include and what to leave out (perhaps the reporter’s choice, but possibly the editor’s) that creates the underlying themes. Let me give an example. The story says:
“As for its six-year completion rate, a measure that’s considered important, SNHU’s is 48% for students pursuing bachelor’s degrees, though LeBlanc says, somewhat defensively, that if students who drop out after their first course are removed from the count, it jumps to 52%. That still puts SNHU multiple points below the national average completion rate of 60.8% for students pursuing bachelor’s degrees, according to government figures. ‘I’m proud of our completion rate and I also want it to get much better,’ he says.”
So, what’s left out? The national average is for all students. If you consider the adult learners we educate, graduation rates are often in the single digits and low teens. While we shared that point, it didn’t make it into the story and this bit makes it look like we slightly underperform, when in fact we greatly over-perform for this student cohort. The story accurately points out that we have never made the Forbes “650 Best Colleges” list, but if you look at a list of best colleges for working adults, we are in the top 25. And yes, we want to do better still (in everything we do).
Another example. The story says: “SNHU still has a 300-acres campus, dotted with slick new buildings paid for with online revenue.”
That is absolutely true. What isn’t said here?
Those online revenues are doing so much more to support our students and community, including:
- Reinvesting in our technology and platforms to provide the best experience for our students.
- Providing more than $50m in institutional aid to students every year.
- Helping pay for the world’s most ambitious attempt to bring full degree programs to refugees.
- Setting up an emergency fund to assist students or employees impacted by the recent shutdown of the federal government.
- Covering the cost of educating 1,000 DACA students.
- Opening the Center for New Americans in our hometown.
- Offering award winning benefits to our employees.
- Making a multi-million-dollar commitment to LRNG and the 55,000 low income youth they serve.
If you leave those facts out and only mention “slick new buildings,” it makes the use of our budget surplus seem more glitzy than good. If you report the fuller story, you realize that as a nonprofit we can help the underserved and those slick new buildings are replacing old and worn out infrastructure for our main campus students.
What you include and leave out is really important. There are other examples in the story, but we have to be philosophical about the choices of reporters and editors.
If I have one regret for the Forbes story, it’s that SNHU has a fierce passion about its mission and the transformational power of education — it’s what fuels us. If a good story includes capturing the essence of a place, this feels like that key part of what we do and who we are is missing here. Another recent story in The Chronicle dubbed us a “mega-university,” sharing with the Forbes story an obsession with our size, when our obsession is neither our budget nor our size, but our mission.
When Kirk Kolenbrander recently left MIT to lead our reinvention of engineering education, he didn’t come to us because of the size of our budget (MIT’s is much larger). He came because of the impact we have on students not served by traditional higher education. He also came to help us create “the college of the future,” to borrow from the Forbes headline.
I am painfully aware of our shortcomings and the areas where we need to improve, but 95% of our students tell us they would choose SNHU again if they were just starting their educational journey and the same percentage say they would recommend us to family and friends. When I write our story someday, that will be my lede.