Survey Finds a ‘Golden Age’ of Education Journalism

By Mark Walsh — May 01, 2016 5 min read
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The typical education journalist in the United States is female, makes $55,000 a year, works for a newspaper and/or an online news outlet, is satisfied with her job and views the beat as prestigious, and is optimistic about the future of the field.

Those conclusions are drawn from a survey of 400 education journalists—defined as reporters and editors, whether full-time, part-time, or freelance, who work for independent news organizations—commissioned by the Education Writers Association and released Sunday at the group’s annual conference here.

The “State of the Education Beat” report “tells a compelling story, and a hopeful one,” the report says. “Two-thirds of respondents say education journalism is going in the right direction at their news outlets. A majority hold that view of the field as a whole. The report challenges the widely accepted narrative that education is a steppingstone beat with negligible prestige.”

“Education journalists are definitely not singing the blues,” said Caroline Hendrie, the executive director of the EWA, said in discussing the report here on May 1.

In the foreword to the report, Hendrie says that she believes the wider universe of all education journalists will learn things from the report that “strengthen your resolve and heighten your sense of purpose.”

“I was so inspired to learn that 95 percent of “State of the Education Beat” respondents say their journalism makes a positive impact on education,” Hendrie writes. “That’s right: 95 percent. And many of those who participated in follow-up phone interviews offered tangible and compelling examples of impact. Apparently, I’m far from alone in my conviction that education journalists are making a difference.”

EWA turned to the Education Week Research Center to conduct the study. (Note: I had no role in it and got no advance access save for an embargoed copy of the final product from EWA a few hours before its release.)

The research center issued a questionnaire last fall to EWA members and another distribution list of education journalists. The 400 responses are not a representative national sample, but they include reporters, editors, columnists, producers working in newspapers, magazines, radio, television, and online news from across the nation. The center also conducted in-depth interviews with a sub-group of the respondents.

Gender Gap

As for conclusions about the characteristics of the average education journalist, the EWA study compared its own results with a 2014 study of the journalism industry as a whole.

Thus, the EWA study found that 71 percent of education journalists were female, and 29 percent male, compared with 38 percent of all U.S. journalists being female and 62 percent male. That’s one conclusion where the traditional notion of the education beat being a stronghold for women holding to form.

The EWA study found 78 percent of its respondents were white, while 22 percent nonwhite. That means there is more racial diversity among education journalists than among all U.S. journalists, which were 91 percent white and 9 percent nonwhite, according to the 2014 study, “The American Journalist in the Digital Age.”

Sixty percent of the EWA respondents report working for newspapers, followed by 58 percent working for online outlets, 22 percent for education-focused outlets, 18 percent for magazines, 9 percent for radio, 4 percent for television, and 3 percent for wire services. Respondents could choose more than one category, and the study acknowledges that newspapers and most other media also have online versions. (The report touches on the recent explosion in local and national web news outlets focuse on education, which I reported on here.)

The median salary for full-timers in the EWA study was $55,000 per year, similar to the median for U.S. journalists as a whole. There was a gender gap, with male education journalists earning about $3,000 more per year than females.

The vast majority—82 percent—of respondents to the EWA survey are reporters, followed by 23 percent for editors, 7 percent for editorial writers or columnist, and 9 percent other categories.

As Hendrie indicated, many education journalists see their beat as a “capstone,” the study says, not the stepping stone to other beats it was once widely considered to be. Still, many in the field came from other beats and jobs in journalism and “fell into” the education beat, said Holly Yettick of the Education Week Research Center.

And perhaps surprisingly, millenial-aged education journalists are more optimistic than their older peers that the education beat is going in the right direction and that now is a good time to be starting on the beat.

When asked whether they thought their journalism was making a positive impact on education, a whopping 95 percent said yes. The researchers probed this finding in their in-depth interviews, finding that education journalists could often point to a specific story or series that informed a policy decision or influenced public spending.

When it came to perceived challenges on the beat, the most cited issue—by 65 percent of respondents—was a belief that being responsible for too many aspects of education coverage left the journalist too little time for in-depth coverage.

One notable finding of the study is that just 5 percent of respondents had a favorable view of TV news coverage of education, and or the 17 TV news journalists in the survey, not one of them expressed a favorable view of their medium’s coverage of the topic. (Newspaper coverage had a 72 percent favorable view; radio, 46 percent; and Internet 33 percent.)

The report notes that TV has never played a major role in covering education, but it is a leading source of news for many Americans.

The study concludes that there is evidence that the nation is living in a “golden age” of education journalism.

“The typical education journalist senses that he or she is doing good work that makes a real difference in the world,” the report says. “Perhaps as a result, education journalists tend to like their jobs and say their news organizations are committed to covering the issue.”

“Yet troubling signs remain, especially within the mainstream media where most Americans get their news,” the report continues. “Decades of cutbacks have decimated staffs at general-interest newspapers, which have traditionally produced most of the nation’s mainstream education coverage.”

The report concludes that perhaps the best barometer for the future is the high confidence level of young education journalists.

“If the views of these millennials are any indicator, that future looks bright,” the report says.

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