Are Newspapers Missing the Beat?

By Mark Walsh — February 16, 1994 18 min read
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For nearly seven years now, Philadelphia Inquirer reporter Dale Mezzacappa has followed the “Belmont 112.’'

The name refers to a class of inner-city 6th graders who were the beneficiaries of a 1987 promise from philanthropists to pay for their college educations if they hung tough and graduated from high school. In a series of stories, Mezzacappa was able to document the many unforeseen obstacles that arose in the elementary class’s path to college.

Despite the guarantee of tuition and special mentoring efforts, many students found the gulf between their low-income city neighborhood and the dream of a better life too wide to cross. Only about half of the students from the class graduated on time last year. Two dozen have done time in jail or juvenile detention--one on murder charges. Eighteen girls had given birth as of last year. Three students had died violently. But, as Mezzacappa reports, the class’s graduation rate was still better than average for students from West Philadelphia’s Belmont Elementary School.

To Mezzacappa, her occasional series “has been a good window on what the real obstacles are to getting the kids what they need through the schools and how the system is so impervious to drastic change.’' To observers of daily-newspaper education coverage, perhaps the most striking aspect of the Belmont 112 is that the same reporter is covering the story today as when news of the promise to the children first broke in 1987.

Except for a one-year break for a journalism fellowship at Harvard University, Mezzacappa has stuck with her beat covering the Philadelphia public schools since 1986. “You do get into ruts, but there is endless variety to the beat if you look for it,’' she says. “There are 250 schools in Philadelphia and 200,000 kids. There are endless story possibilities.’'

But many critics would argue that Mezzacappa is the exception rather than the rule when it comes to education reporters. Too often, they say, newspaper editors give the beat to young, inexperienced reporters who often don’t want the assignment and stay with it little more than a year or two.

And the list of complaints goes on. Educators also charge that newspapers miss the big picture--the story of education reform--by focusing too much on school board politics, funding problems, school violence, or whatever other crisis of the moment makes a good headline. The bottom line, they say, is simple: Newspapers have done a poor job of covering education.

Education coverage “is driven by crisis rather than insight,’' says Samuel G. Freedman, a former education reporter for The New York Times who is now an assistant professor of journalism at Columbia University. “Just keeping up with the most grotesque crises is a full-time occupation. It is rare to find the time to cover something other than the disaster of the day.’'

“A Story at Risk: The Rising Tide of Mediocre Education Coverage,’' a 1989 special report by Phi Delta Kappan, documents other common charges. “Those rare stories that do deal with learning are generally about isolated, ‘experimental’ programs and come at the end of a series digging into systemwide failures,’' the study says. What’s more, it adds, “A good number of these 99-part expeditions are written with one objective in mind: winning prizes.’'

Such criticisms have been around for years. But interviews with education reporters, newspaper editors, media analysts, and professional educators do suggest a new twist: A growing number of education reporters and their editors have come to agree with the critics--and some are doing something about it.

Many point to The New York Times as the metropolitan newspaper with the strongest commitment to covering education. Each Wednesday since the late 1980’s, the paper has run a special page devoted to education, often dealing with reform issues of national importance. And for a paper sometimes criticized for devoting more space to Bosnia than to Brooklyn, the paper’s coverage of New York City schools has improved greatly in recent years, according to observers like the longtime media analyst George R. Kaplan.

Like the Inquirer and many other metropolitan newspapers, the Times has also turned to the occasional series to deliver in-depth education coverage. In the spring of 1990, for example, Times reporter Sara Rimer set out to offer a behind-the-scenes look at Public School 94 in the Bronx. Her series showed how one elementary school attempted to educate children despite, as the paper phrased it, “daunting obstacles shared by so many of New York City’s public schools--an aging, crowded building, a painful lack of money, a Byzantine school bureaucracy, and the chaos of many of the students’ lives.’'

Instead of spending months researching and writing a special series to publish either in one giant supplement or over the course of several days, writers of the occasional series follow a story over the long haul and report the news as it happens. This flexibility makes the occasional series an especially effective vehicle for reporting the incremental education story. After all, as Kaplan writes, the education story doesn’t break, it “oozes.’'

The Chicago Tribune has adopted a similar approach for an ongoing series about how the much-discussed Chicago School Reform Act is playing out in one city elementary school. In fact, the premise of the series is that, if school reform is going to work in Chicago, it will have to work one school at a time.

Reporter Ellen Warren, who joined the Tribune last year after covering the White House for the Knight-Ridder newspaper chain, is not the regular education writer. While another Tribune reporter keeps up with the daily torrent of news from the city school board, Warren spends much of her time at Mitchell Elementary School, a site chosen, she says, not “because it’s great, but because, in some important ways, it is getting better.’'

At the school, Warren has discovered a classroom of students who lobbied unsuccessfully to keep their teacher from being transferred because of bureaucratic seniority rules. She has found that distractions such as an outbreak of head lice or a lack of doors on bathroom stalls get in the way of learning. Meanwhile, the local school council--a panel of parents, neighborhood residents, and school employees that oversees school operations under the reform law--has had to develop a policy on what to do with the children when gunfire erupts on the playground.

“I have brought an absolute lack of knowledge of the Chicago public school system to the story,’' Warren says, noting that a fresh view can yield new insights. After writing about the lack of toilet-stall doors at Mitchell Elementary, for example, she learned “there is hardly any public school in Chicago that has doors on its toilets. But that doesn’t make it right.’'

The school-reform law, enacted by the Illinois legislature in 1988, was motivated in large part by the Tribune’s exhaustive series that year documenting what many in Chicago never really doubted: Its public schools were among the worst in the nation. Nonetheless, the series described in stark detail the entrenched power of the school system’s bureaucracy and the Chicago Teachers Union, and it demonstrated how the ill-preparedness of high school graduates threatened the local economy.

Donald R. Moore, the executive director of Designs for Change, an educational-reform advocacy group in Chicago, thinks the Chicago Sun-Times does a better job of covering the city’s schools. But neither paper has given enough attention to the schools that have made progress under the reform effort, he says, leaving readers with the overall impression that Chicago’s schools are still violent, corrupt, and ineffective. “If school reform was covered with the same commitment as high school sports,’' Moore says, “there would be 10 times as many stories in the newspapers.’'

The more traditional series--replete with photographs, graphics, and shorter side stories--often garner as much attention from critics as from readers. Some critics claim these splashy projects overwhelm the reader, and suggest that the motivation for such series is mainly to impress judges of journalism-award contests.

For better or worse, these series do account for a significant number of intensive efforts to cover the complexities of school problems and efforts at reform.

The Clarion-Ledger in Jackson, Miss., for example, won a Pulitzer Prize for its 1982 series about the inadequacy of Mississippi schools. The series led to the passage of a major reform bill in the state legislature.

Legislative developments have also driven education coverage in Kentucky, where the state’s system of public education was declared unconstitutional in 1989. Since then, such newspapers as The Courier-Journal in Louisville and the Lexington Herald-Leader have strived to keep readers informed and involved in the struggle to reinvent the system.

Other common concerns--such as school safety or student achievement--often make for popular series. The Greensboro (N.C.) News & Record, the Rochester, N.Y., Democrat and Chronicle, and The Dallas Morning News all published series last year on violence in the schools. In the Democrat and Chronicle’s package on an increase in assaults against teachers, reporter Linda K. Wertheimer documented both the physical threat of violence and its emotional toll.

The Seattle Times used a computer analysis of school data to focus on disparities in school performance. Its three-part series last June showed how the “the limited space in prime schools and classes is usually filled by insiders who know how to skirt the system’s potholes.’'

The Los Angeles Times turned to a lengthy single-supplement format to tell one school’s reform story from multiple angles--including the political one. Reporter John Johnson and photographer Richard Derk spent the better part of the 1992-93 school year at Northridge Middle School in the suburban San Fernando Valley. School administrators considered Northridge a model school involved in a California middle-school-reform effort that emphasizes nurturing and self-esteem, as well as more interdisciplinary teaching and cooperative learning.

The 16-page special report, “Hard Lessons,’' published in the Times’s Valley edition last September, examined many typical issues--gang violence creeping up on the school’s middle-class students, aspirations of the gifted and the lazy, and sex-education classes in the age of AIDS.

But thanks to unusual access to teachers’ union meetings and gripe sessions in the lounge and frequent interviews with the principal, Johnson also painted a portrait of the everyday obstacles that can block serious reform efforts.

Principal Beryl Ward, for example, comes across as an earnest educator who believes there is too much emphasis in education on standards and standardized-test scores. She emphasizes grades given by teachers, attendance records, and the “smile gauge’'--whether students are content--instead of test scores. But Johnson also depicts Ward in a constant struggle with a core group of dissatisfied teachers who appear to be undermining the reform effort at almost every turn.

Ward, who says the reporter “appeared to encourage divisiveness,’' was not at all happy with the special report. The reporter “was a ready ear for anyone who wanted to complain about anything,’' she asserts. “There is conflict in any group of people who work together. But it was very unfair to portray only the negative things.’'

When pressed, Ward admits that the portrayal of some teachers as constantly undermining the reforms at her school was “probably accurate.’'

“But we are a whole lot more than that,’' she adds.

Despite the mixed reviews, Ardith Hilliard, the managing editor of the Times’s Valley edition, says the series was worth the major investment of time and money. “I felt the paper was providing excellent coverage [of schools], but not from the ground level,’' she says. “Most papers do an average or above-average job of covering the politics of their school district. This [report] reassured my sense that papers need to look for ways to get below the surface.’'

Increasingly, newspapers are going to extraordinary lengths to scratch below the surface of public education. While most education reporters try to spend as much time in schools as their schedules allow, papers are assigning reporters to spend months or even a full academic year in a single classroom or school.

New York Newsday reporter Emily Sachar applied for a temporary teaching license to spend the 1988-89 school year as a mathematics teacher at a junior high school in Brooklyn. Her in-depth series, which she later turned into the book Shut Up and Let the Lady Teach, offered a sobering look at urban education.

Tom French of the St. Petersburg (Fla.) Times has completed yearlong studies of an elementary school classroom and a group of high school friends. French has also turned one of the series into a book, South of Heaven: Welcome to High School at the End of the Twentieth Century.

Similar ideas were popular last year. Reporter G. Wayne Miller of The Providence (R.I.) Journal Bulletin spent a year following students around a typical suburban high school for his “Coming of Age’’ series.

Kansas City Star reporter Donna McGuire spent 54 days as a substitute teacher in five local school districts for her three-part series “Inside Our Classrooms.’' The package featured entries from a diary of her time teaching, including the day students exploded a stink bomb and the time a high school girl refused to do an assignment by explaining, “‘I don’t do essays,’ as if she were refusing to clean windows.’'

The San Francisco Chronicle took a different approach. For a series designed to show how state budget cuts were affecting city high schools, 26-year-old reporter Shann Nix removed her wedding ring and enrolled as an undercover student at George Washington High School. Before too long, however, students sensed that she was an outsider and began saying “Hi, narc’’ when passing her in the halls.

Indeed, many newspapers can point to impressive series or supplements that examine their local schools in some depth. But good, sustained coverage of complicated reform issues is harder to find on a regular basis. In addition to big series, some newspapers are taking steps to bolster their regular coverage of education that goes beyond school board politics and short-term controversies.

The Charlotte (N.C.) Observer last fall began a special yearlong report on education in its community and state. It has also added another education reporter and pulled together a team of city and suburban writers who can look for common trends.

“That has given us more depth,’' says Jennie Buckner, the Observer’s editor. “We have more ‘forest’ coverage as well as ‘tree’ coverage.’'

The paper also commissioned a survey of readers to determine what issues they were most concerned about in public education. The paper then prepared a series of successive major news reports on those issues: violence and discipline, overall school quality, busing and integration, parental involvement. To focus on solutions instead of problems, each report describes what other school districts are trying, says Trisha Greene, the paper’s deputy city editor.

“We are calling this a yearlong [special effort], but I think we have changed our style of coverage forever,’' she adds. “We aren’t getting calls from readers saying, ‘Hey, whatever happened to that great meeting coverage you used to have?’''

In 1991, The Dallas Morning News introduced a weekly section called “Education Extra,’' which is aimed at exploring reform trends and other issues affecting the classroom. “The point is to cover trends in education that our readers might hear about in a news story but aren’t always explained,’' says Karel Holloway, the section’s editor. Recent coverage has featured stories on accelerated schools, theories about multiple intelligences, trends in educational technology, and the importance of algebra.

It isn’t only major metropolitan newspapers that have made education coverage a priority. At The Day, a 50,000-circulation newspaper in New London, Conn., reporters Lucy Harlow and Elissa Bass wrote an award-winning series of stories in 1992 describing the challenges facing that city’s schools.

“They gave us three months off our beat to develop the series,’' Harlow says. “That is unusual for a paper that size.’'

Harlow also represents another trend affecting the quality of education reporting--the difficulty of keeping good reporters on the beat. Not long after the series appeared, Harlow left The Day to go work for the Connecticut Education Association. She cited her growing interest in educational policy and personal reasons for the switch. “The Day is a great newspaper,’' she says. “But what is frustrating for reporters is that the education beat is not considered sexy.’'

Harlow has since moved to the Pennsylvania State Education Association, where she deals with education reporters from newspapers around the state. “At some of the smaller papers here in Pennsylvania, if they even have an education reporter, they are also covering other things,’' she says.

Marilyn Posner, a freelance writer and former president of the Education Writers Association, a national group based in Washington, can attest to that. She spent 17 years as an education reporter and editor at the 45,000-circulation Observer-Reporter in Washington, Pa. She quit after her additional duties as an assistant news editor led to conflicts with her news editor over being stretched too thin. “Editors have to invest in their [education] reporters,’' Posner says. “We don’t give them the chance to do their jobs.’'

As a sought-after source for many education stories, James W. Guthrie, a professor in the graduate school of education at the University of California at Berkeley, finds that frequent turnover of reporters on the education beat is his biggest frustration, too. “I am always bringing a new cohort [of reporters] up to speed,’' he says. “They don’t understand school finance, school governance, or reform issues.’'

The consequence, he says, is that too many reporters lack “the background against which to make judgments’’ about educational trends. “Any nuance is lost,’' he adds. “If they are not going to understand it quickly, then forget it.’'

Some critics say the answer is education. Amy Stuart Wells, an assistant professor of educational policy at the University of California at Los Angeles, calls for reporters to become more immersed in educational research and other developments in the field. “I think there is a core group of education writers who have been on the beat for a long time and really know their stuff,’' says Wells, who wrote her master’s thesis on newspaper coverage of education and has worked for The New York Times. “But the vast majority are new reporters. I think they have a hard time relating what is going on in their hometown to national trends.’'

Larry Hayes, another former E.W.A. president and the editorial-page editor of The Journal-Gazette in Fort Wayne, Ind., also thinks reporters need to learn more about educational research. “My impression is that reporters are not very aware of the research on teaching,’' he says. “And they don’t know how to go about evaluating what they see in a classroom. If the students are yelling out answers, the reporters are impressed.’'

Others say the call for specialized expertise runs up against journalists’ traditional view of themselves as generalists who can handle any story or beat. Says Warren of the Chicago Tribune: “It ain’t brain surgery. I’ve written about arms control; I can write about school reform.’'

Despite high reporter turnover and the problems it brings to education coverage, others argue that more reporters are staying with the beat for several years and using their insight to write more knowledgeable stories.

“It seems to me that, over time, with the continuing examination of education reform, there are more reporters covering education,’' says Lisa J. Walker, the E.W.A.'s executive director. “I think that has led to more sophisticated reporting and more extensive coverage.’' About half of the E.W.A.'s 750 members are newspaper reporters.

“Your average education writers these days are better informed, better educated, and are willing to go the extra mile,’' adds George Kaplan, the media analyst. Instead, Kaplan looks to editors for change. “Time after time, writers are willing to scratch far below the surface, but they don’t seem to be able to get the space or the time,’' he says. “Despite the cosmetic support of education reporting [from editors], it is basically treated as a dull story.’'

But even though many newspapers are working hard to improve education coverage--with more in-depth analysis of reform issues, special series that deliver a behind-the-scenes look into schools, and seasoned reporters who will stick around for a few years--even the most optimistic observers say there’s still plenty of room for improvement. “Volume and quality of coverage are up substantially,’' Kaplan writes in his 1992 book Images of Education: The Mass Media’s Version of America’s Schools. “But critical educational issues still beg for the thorough probing that less worthy but more glamorous subjects often receive.’'

But given the efforts newspapers across the country are making to improve education coverage, maybe Dale Mezzacappa of The Philadelphia Inquirer isn’t the exception after all. Sure, reporters continue to cover the obligatory school board politics. But more and more, education reporters like Mezzacappa are making time to keep up with stories like the Belmont 112.

One of her most recent updates told of a 15-year-old boy who faced charges of shooting to death another 15-year-old student on the street. Another boy had all but dropped out of high school just weeks after he and the rest of the Belmont 112 got to meet President Bush. And a homeless mother of two struggled to stay in school and support her children.

But not all the students’ stories were so heavy-hearted. Several graduating seniors were making plans to attend Ivy League colleges or elite historically black institutions. Some of those who didn’t graduate on time were still in school. And others were surfacing “out of desperation,’' trying to get back on track. The philanthropists’ offer for college is good until 2000.

And Mezzacappa may even be around to write the last story in the Belmont 112 series. For the time being, she plans to stick with the education beat.


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