Education and journalism are, in many ways, fundamentally incompatible crafts. In the classroom and the research center, the best educators are constantly building on the past—tomorrow’s lesson plan or academic study is designed to build on yesterday’s progress. Reporters start everyday from zero, never able to assume their audience has been exposed to any prior knowledge.
This challenge is hardly unique to education reporting—lawyers and judges, police and doctors, musicians and admirals are often frustrated by the morning paper or evening news. Day-to-day reporting in newspapers, magazines, television, and online at best is simplistic, and at worst is reflective of basic misunderstandings of the subject, they say. At the same time, such mainstream journalism is the primary basis of knowledge and opinion for the vast majority of people. Only a tiny percentage of information consumers read research studies, peruse academic journals, or have serious conversation with education experts.
Daily journalism, however imperfect, clearly drives the public’s perception of every aspect of education, from preschool through graduate school, as well as shaping the way the public sees teachers’ unions, school boards, legislators, and the rest of the education establishment. This entry looks at how the requirements of reporters’ work affect coverage, focuses on the typical education stories found in the media, and provides some guidelines for working with the media.
The Reporter’s Job
The greatest limitations for most reporters are of time and space. Most stories in the general interest media are reported, written, and published or broadcast within one or two days. Reporters often have only hours to familiarize themselves with the issues, gather the relevant facts, and produce a story—consultation with experts and deep analysis of data are often unavailable luxuries.
Even when reporters do have a nuanced understanding of a complex issues, they are often limited by space—either physical space in a publication or airtime in a broadcast. A major-market newspaper story is usually 750 to 1,000 words, although deeper stories (normally printed on weekends) can occasionally run 2,000 words or more. Likewise, radio and television reporters are generally forced to report a story in under one minute, and a story could be squeezed into as little as fifteen seconds.
With few exceptions, reporters in the mainstream media are rarely specialists in the areas they cover. At newspapers or magazines, the topic of education is often assigned to relatively junior reporters, who rarely spend more than a few years on the beat. Television and radio reporters are normally jacks-ofall-trades, covering an election one day, a murder another day, and the annual release of standardized test scores on the day in between.
These challenges tend to become less pronounced at the largest organizations: The New York Times, Washington Post, the Associated Press, and National Public Radio are among the outlets that have one or more veteran reporters with years of experience focusing primarily on education. Niche publications such as Education Week and The Chronicle of Higher Education also maintain staffs that are well versed in education trends and terminology.
The seasoned journalists are the most likely to engage in complex policy reporting and trend analysis; most other journalists employed by general interest news outlets will focus on the few story types discussed here.
The release of standardized test scores. In the era of the No Child Left Behind Act and its focus on high-stake testing, most states build carefully orchestrated press events around the announcement of test scores. Professional organizations such as the Education Writers Association and the Hechinger Institute on Education and the Media at Columbia University’s Teachers College have encouraged reporters to examine long-term trends and engage independent experts and statisticians in the analysis of such test scores.
However, the limits of time and space often lead reporters to rely heavily on the data supplied by government officials, who are eager to use their own interpretations to serve their own agenda. Other standardized tests—the SAT, ACT, and National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP)—may prompt similar stories.
The publication of general interest studies. Universities, think tanks, and private companies have become increasingly adept at publicizing reports or studies that have easy appeal to a lay audience. In recent years, the successful marketing of such reports has led to widespread coverage of issues such as the impact of gender on test scores, the availability of unhealthy food (especially soda) in public schools, and the health consequences of high-stakes testing. Many reporters are unable to differentiate between well-constructed studies published in peer-reviewed journals and pseudoscientific studies constructed to generate publicity.
Policy stories based on breaking news. These are usually prompted by local issues: the 2004 killing of a middle school student by his classmate in a Miami school bathroom led to countless stories about school safety; the psychological impact of violence; and the role of movies, television, and video games on child development. The highly publicized grading errors on the 2006 SAT gave rise to numerous stories about the reliability of standardized tests. Local debates over the teaching of evolution issues routinely lead to broader stories about how religion is handled in schools.
Soft features. These local stories generally focus on a particularly interesting teacher, student, or program at a single school or district. Traditionally these features have included the retirement of a long-serving teacher, the introduction of a particular computer program into a curriculum, and the high school graduation of a special education teenager, among other stories. More recent stories with national traction include the use of yoga in elementary school classrooms and the use of podcasts and iPods in high school and college courses.
Political news. More than any time in recent history, education has become highly politicized in the United States. While elected school board members and superintendents have long generated small amounts of local coverage, NCLB and its state-level cousins have made public education a major issue for lawmakers, governors, and the president. Major changes to these policies— especially consumer-friendly programs such as school grades—will certainly prompt news coverage.
Working With The Media
When working with reporters in the mainstream media, it is crucial for educators to be cognizant of their audience: a demographically broad group of laypeople whose attention is being competed for even within a newspaper or broadcast. Requests for coverage, then, should focus on a story’s impact on a wide audience and be presented as easy to understand. Television reporters, especially, will expect on-camera interviews and other visuals. Even print reporters— driven by the demands of the Internet—are increasingly eager to incorporate audio, video, and digital documents into their reports.
During interviews, reporters expect educators to be clear and brief, and not to use jargon. Unless reporters face extreme deadline pressure, most are eager to obtain a full understanding of the issue at hand—but educators should be prepared to see the nuances oversimplified or ignored in many cases.
One of the fastest changing developments in education journalism—as in the rest of journalism—is blogging. In many cases, blogs are simply another outlet for established voices such as teachers, students, and mainstream reporters. In a few cases, however, blogs from nontraditional writers are emerging; some are associated with particular agencies (teachers unions, think tanks, etc.), while others are wholly independent. As with any other form of journalism, blogs are written by people with a wide range of experience, talent, and agendas.
- Maeroff, G. (Ed.). (1998). Imaging education: The media and schools in America. New York: Teachers College Press.
- Hechinger Institute on Education and the Media, Columbia University’s Teachers College: http://www.tc.columbia.edu/hechinger
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