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Some Online Sites May Blur News, Advocacy Line

By Mark Walsh — August 04, 2015 4 min read
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While many of the new generation of online sites dedicating resources to education reporting are bona fide news operations, others arguably blur the line between news and advocacy.

One of the newest, The Seventy Four, co-founded by former CNN anchor Campbell Brown, immediately stoked that debate, in part because Ms. Brown is already a bit of a lightning rod for her backing of legal efforts to end teacher tenure in New York state.

When The Seventy Four (named for the country’s 74 million children under the age of 18) was launched in July, Ms. Brown wrote an essay arguing that advocacy and straight-news journalism are not incompatible.

“I have learned that not every story has two sides,” Ms. Brown said in the essay. “We will fiercely challenge those forces within the education establishment who impede innovation in our schools and who protect and defend inequality and institutional failure.”

In an interview, Ms. Brown said she views The Seventy Four as a news site, with a handful of young reporters writing news and features, while opinion has its own section.

“This isn’t a vanity project,” said Ms. Brown, who is the editor-in-chief of The Seventy Four. “I think what people need to do is separate me from the news site.”

LynNell Hancock, a professor at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, said the site must prove itself as an independent, unbiased news organization.

Ms. Brown’s “own well-financed advocacy work so far has been narrowly focused more or less around a single issue—dismantling contract protections for teachers,” Ms. Hancock said. “It’s natural to expect this venture will be used to promote her views. So we’ll all be reading with interest to see if the coverage here will rise above.”

Writing With a ‘Bit of Glee’

Some sites are offshoots of policy organizations. The liberal Center for American Progress is behind ThinkProgress, which has an education reporter writing about the reauthorization of the main federal K-12 education law and other topics, from a decidedly progressive perspective.

On the political right, meanwhile, the Heritage Foundation has The Daily Signal, with news and commentary pieces that also highlight education topics.

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The Daily Caller, a news site widely read by conservatives, is harder to place.

The site was founded in 2010 by the commentator Tucker Carlson. Eric Owens, the site’s education editor, said he strives for a mix of stories that includes “serious reporting, outrage reporting, and fun reporting.”

“I like writing with a little bit of glee,” said Mr. Owens, who previously worked as a writer for the test-prep organization Princeton Review. He scours local education news outlets for stories that can be rewritten with that sense of outrage or irony, the target frequently being what progressives are doing in public schools and higher education.

“I feel like writing without a perspective is pointless,” he said. “I feel a lot of [education journalism] is really boring and not fun to read.”

Heavyweight Opinions

At least one prominent new education site has positioned itself as a place for opinion.

Last fall, Peter Cunningham, a former communications chief for U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, launched Education Post, chiefly a commentary site that favors school choice and rigorous education standards, among other policy measures.

“I think what we’re seeing is more and more competition to define the narrative,” Mr. Cunningham said.

His site doesn’t claim to be a news organization, only to promote “better conversation, better education.”

Among the features is the Red Pen Page, where Mr. Cunningham and others take aim at “myths and falsehoods” in news stories and other platforms. Their “corrections” are made to look as if they were written in the margins with a red pen.

“For better or worse, all this attention is going to make education more relevant in the civic debate, and that’s good in a lot of ways,” Mr. Cunningham said.

The Seventy Four, Ms. Brown’s site, is also aiming to elevate education as a national topic, specifically in the 2016 presidential race.

The site has announced plans to co-sponsor presidential-candidate forums in New Hampshire and Iowa on K-12 policy. The first event, set for Aug. 19 in New Hampshire, quickly gained commitments to speak from several Republican candidates, including former Gov. Jeb Bush of Florida and Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin.

Ms. Brown thinks this coming election is ripe for a higher profile for education because of such factors as the debate over the Common Core State Standards and the education records of some candidates.

Meanwhile, Ms. Brown hopes to bring her extensive television experience to bear on the site in the form of greater use of video.

“Video works really well for stories about education because the issue has such a human face,” she said.

True Independence?

Some observers believe it is easy enough to tell where some of the new education sites are coming from, but others watching the trend are more troubled.

“The question is where do you draw the line between an independent news organization and an advocacy site?” said Caroline Hendrie, the executive director of the Education Writers Association and a former editor for Education Week. The group has strict rules for granting full membership to bona fide journalists; it offers an auxiliary form of membership for advocates and public relations professionals.

“What constitutes true independence?” Ms. Hendrie said. “News consumers can be forgiven for being confused.”

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A version of this article appeared in the August 05, 2015 edition of Education Week as Line Between News and Advocacy Could Blur for Some Online Sites

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