January 20, 2010

Sun Opinion — By the Numbers!

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The Cornell Daily Sun has, rather unintentionally, come to dominate my college experience. I’ve been an editor in the design department, I’ve written articles for almost every section (still working on sports), I started the Science Section, I’ve blogged about page design and constructed more front pages than I would ever care to remember. But the most fun hat that I’ve worn is “opinion columnist” (pun intended). Lots of face time, very little work involved — a sweet deal indeed.

It seems fitting that I begin my last semester by focusing my commentary inward. The best part? No one working for The Sun can write a nasty letter to the editor! This is gonna be a cakewalk.

Ladies and gentlemen, I present “Sun Opinion — By the Numbers!”

College vs. Nation

Many fine publications circulate about our beloved campus, but none of these publications can match The Sun in its frequency of publication, its broad appeal and its advertising revenue. The Sun is the only major, independent, profitable publication at Cornell, and it’s been that way for over a century. This paper is thus uniquely responsible for reporting the news happening here, on campus and around the City of Ithaca.

Opinion has a slightly different mission, since it needs to not only comment on Cornell news, but also provide the college students’ take on issues of national importance. How well do columnists balance these competing interests?

I compiled a bar graph reflecting how the Opinion section’s coverage differs from that of the news section. The graph shows the percentage of stories published in November and December 2009 related to two different topics: Cornell’s financial woes and the national political personalities du jour: Barack Obama and Sarah Palin. In news, 25 stories were solely dedicated to discussing Cornell’s unprecedented budget contractions and its ambitious “Reimagining Cornell” campaign. A mere two columns in Opinion were dedicated to this topic. Please note, unsigned editorials (the voice of the staff at large), guest columns and letters to the editor do not figure into these statistics.

In a rough, incomplete way, we can group Opinion columns into three broad categories: campus issues, national/international issues and cultural issues. I attempt to show, in a scatter plot, how different columnists focus on these three issues. The horizontal axis represents how many times a columnist used the word “Obama” last semester. The vertical axis represents the frequency of the word “Cornell.” My proposition: writers near the origin focus on cultural issues, writers high up the vertical axis focus on campus issues, and writers far out on the horizontal axis enjoy discussing national politics.

I can think of a million and one ways this chosen metric fails, but I personally find these results surprisingly accurate.

Minority Report

On the subject of ethnicity, I would like to begin with a couple disclaimers. First, all distinctions are “self reported” by the respondents. Second, I had to “correct” the raw U.S. census data, since Latinos were asked to report a “race” in addition to their “ethnicity.” Whatever that means.

The verdict? Cornell is very Asian, sort of white and impressively international (and by international, I mean South Korean). Latinos and blacks are horrendously underrepresented at Cornell, and The Sun Opinion section is devoid of black writers. Vicente Gonzalez ’12, a new addition to the section, represents the entire Latino-American block. Florencia Ulloa ’12, from Mexico, keeps our section international.

The big question on my mind is what are these magical “multi or bi-racial” and “other” categories supposed to mean? A mere three percent of Americans identify themselves in these two categories, but here at Cornell a whopping 15 percent of students identify themselves as such. My theory: These are all the people who, on occasion, like to point out their “three percent Cherokee” DNA.

Caucasians are the real shocker here. Even if you took a healthy chunk of Cornell’s “multi-racial” category and stuck it in this category, you’d still come well short of the general U.S. population. Now consider this: Roughly 20 percent of Cornellians consider themselves Jewish, whereas less than two percent of Americans consider themselves Jewish. If you then go on to assume the proportion of atheists at Cornell is higher than in the country at large, you can only conclude that white Christians are perhaps the most underrepresented group on campus. I call this phenomenon “demographic karma.”

Whatever the case, The Sun Opinion section compensates for this injustice in style: a full 70 percent of the columnists consider themselves Caucasian.

Caucasian is a term that, at least in college admissions, includes all Arab nations. American students with roots in Iraq, Egypt, Syria, Morocco and Yemen are all instructed to check off this box on their applications to nearly every prestigious institution in the country. I couldn’t think of a more effective way to guarantee the future leaders of America never encounter folks from the countries we tend to wage wars against. Talk about diversity.

Where Do Columnists Come From?

There are three separate groups who work for The Sun relevant to this discussion: the editors, who run the show; the general staff of writers, photographers, designers, web developers and businessmen who contribute content and create the daily paper; and the Opinion columnists who opine.

Columnists tend to come from outside the “Sun Family.” In some loose sense they are supposed to represent the myriad conflicting voices of the University. Along with guest columns and letters to the editor, the section becomes a voice of record to complement the reporting that takes place in the paper at large. Nevertheless, former editors and reporters do tend to creep into the section, especially graduating seniors.

The pie chart here shows the breakdown of this upcoming semester’s undergraduate columnists based on where they originated. One-fifth of all columnists come from the Arts and Entertainment section.

And how do columnists break down by undergraduate college? Above is a bar graph comparing undergrad columnists to the general college enrollments. Arts and Sciences overwhelmingly dominates the cast. CALS, despite being home to the communication major, remains strongly underrepresented (as a massive consolation prize, the current editor in chief is a CALS student).

Engineering, an endowed school slightly smaller than CALS, comes in (an admittedly distant) second place for fielding the most columnists.

What of HumEc and the hotelies? It seems 2010 is just not their year. The last Hotelie/columnist who comes to my mind is the notorious “Jenna B,” the “sexpert” who set the bar impossibly high for those who would follow her.

Original Author: Munier Salem