Covering Education, From the Printed Page to the Big Screen

By Mark Walsh — September 03, 2013 4 min read
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Welcome to a new blog covering, as the title suggests, Education and the Media.

I’ve been associated with Education Week for many years as a reporter, editor, and blogger. I am the author of The School Law Blog at Education Week, and a contributing writer covering education law and the U.S. Supreme Court. I plan to continue those roles. Now Education Week has asked me to take a look at how education policy is covered in the general news media.

There’s plenty to talk about. How well are newspapers, magazines, radio and TV stations, and Web-only news outlets covering schools? What do the financial challenges of the media industry in recent years mean for resources to cover education? What are some of the outstanding national and local efforts that deserve wider attention? Which stories have missed the mark, or display some misunderstandings about the intricacies of education policy?

As the Brookings Institution in Washington has documented in a series of reports over past four years, education journalism in the United States faces some daunting challenges. There is very little serious reporting of education issues by national news outlets, a 2009 Brookings report concluded. “In general, local papers appear to be more substantive and to devote greater attention to education policy and school reform than do national news organizations,” the report said.

Yet local coverage of education has faced a steady drumbeat of cuts because of the economic collapse affecting newspapers, magazines, and broadcast outlets. In a 2010 follow-up report, Brookings said: “The most basic problem is a broad decline in the number of education beat reporters. As news organizations have cut budgets, news rooms have seen their beat reporters’ responsibilities stretched to general assignment reporting, and their general assignment reporters covering stories that once constituted a beat.”

Things have only gotten worse for traditional news organizations in the three years since that report, as declines in advertising, layoffs, and cutbacks have continued. Meanwhile, changes in ownership are pending for some of the nation’s largest newspapers and among those with long traditions of strong education reporting. The Boston Globe is slated to be sold to a new, local owner, while The Washington Post is being sold by the family that has owned it for 80 years. And Tribune Co. is offering its newspapers for sale, which include the Chicago Tribune, the Los Angeles Times, and The Baltimore Sun. What such sales may mean for the publishers’ commitment to education reporting is pure speculation at this point.

Meanwhile, the rapidly evolving media landscape has seen the rise of new, mostly Internet-based outlets covering education. Many of these are focused on news, with such national outlets as the Hechinger Report, Inside Higher Ed, and the new Politico Pro Education, as well as locally geared sites such as GothamSchools, the Philadelphia Public School Notebook, Education News Colorado, and the LA Schools Report.

Broadcast TV, cable, and radio outlets are a part of the landscape, with many local outlets doing award-winning work. But only a handful of national or local broadcasters have dedicated education beat reporters.

Meanwhile, a growing roster of online outlets offer a mix of news, analysis, and opinion, such as This Week in Education, Flypaper, the Quick and the Ed, and Diane Ravitch’s Blog.

The opinion outlets are one outgrowth of an increasingly polarized public debate about education reform across the country, something Education Week covered this past spring. And Education Week itself, which takes no editorial positions (though it runs opinion submissions from outsiders in its Commentary section), has found itself in the cross-hairs of criticism over its coverage of certain issues, its acceptance of grant money from some of the same foundations that promote certain education priorities, and for other reasons.

Though my role with this blog is not to be Education Week‘s “ombudsman"—a reader representative or ethics editor—I will be covering the newspaper itself and its coverage when developments warrant it.

In a slightly different vein, I plan to look at depictions of schools, teachers, and students in popular culture. These range from self-styled important works like the documentary film “Waiting for ‘Superman’” (charter schools) or the drama “Won’t Back Down” (parent trigger) to lighter screen fare such as “Bad Teacher.” (That film, by the way, is slated to move from the big screen to TV with a midseason series of the same name on CBS.)

One of my early beats at Education Week was the media and education, including educational television and the rise of ventures such as the ad-supported Channel One. There was no World Wide Web back then, and no blogs. It was sometimes hard to get space in Education Week‘s pages for media and education stories. Now, with the Web, space is unlimited. I hope to use it wisely.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Education and the Media blog.