The Media and the Schools

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In a book to be published this month, George R. Kaplan, a long-time media-tracker who writes and lectures on social and educational issues, gives answers to some of the nagging questions most educators have had from time to time about the quantity and quality of news coverage in their field. Below, in an adapted excerpt from Images of Education: The Mass Media's Version of America's Schools, he has the broad outlines of why education's story is seldom approached by journalists as "hard news":

If public education drifts somewhere between catastrophe and disaster, as so many Americans now believe, why aren't we storming the barricades and finding heads to roll? As "a nation of news junkies," the contention of Michael O'Neill, the former editor of the New York Daily News, shouldn't we be demanding a straight, unadorned account of whether one of our bedrock institutions still has its bearings? Or are we consigned to a hodgepodge of sometimes inspired reporting, outdated belief systems, and wildly uneven editorial commitment--all adding up to less comprehensive, less balanced coverage than the American people deserve and must have?

In his inaugural address in 1869, President Charles W. Eliot of Harvard University described his primary task as "the necessity of influencing opinion toward advancement of learning." Though today's higher-education leaders might place money-raising a notch higher, Eliot's message remains widely honored on university campuses. But it is somewhat less admired in public-school circles, where latent suspicion of the news media and their motives too often limits open communication, and, inevitably, the encompassing understanding that schools, decision-makers, and the consuming public must share. More's the pity, for we have become a nation of learners, a population eager to absorb and understand what we can of the massive flow of information that swirls about us.

For a society of learning addicts, though, our level of general knowledge is surprisingly shallow and selective. The couch-potato strategist capable of drawing fine distinctions among sophisticated weapons systems in a desert 7,000 miles from home would be hard-pressed to identify the local school superintendent. After several weeks of heavy media play in 1986 when he was nominated to be Chief Justice, the name of 14-year U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justice William Rehnquist went unrecognized by 60 percent of the participants in a public-opinion poll. A few months before the Persian Gulf war, in mid-1990, only 6 percent of the nation's under-30 generation could identify Richard Cheney, 8 percent knew who Vaclav Havel and Thomas Foley were, and but 12 percent had heard of William J. Bennett, arguably education's best-known figure of the 1980's and the high-profile "drug czar" of 1989 and 1990.

Nearly a decade after the flurry that greeted A Nation at Risk, the first manifesto of the education-reform era, the impact of the media's treatment of our institutional learning enterprise remains hard to assess. The volume and quality of coverage are up substantially, but critical educational issues still beg for the thorough probing that less worthy but more glamorous subjects often receive. The schools and the media have never been a close fit, and our culture's emphasis on personalities and success, on how we meet statistical goals, does not stir the passions of education-beat journalists or the school people they cover.

Education's story has no unidentified flying objects or military victories, few scoops, and almost no shock value. It is seldom excessively adversarial. Everyone believes in good schools. There are no sensational revelations left after a generation of school-bashing. Nor does education offer real events to cover. The American public is not panting in anticipation of the U.S. Education Department's annual report, "The Condition of Education."

Education is rarely a "hard news" story. It is oral and literary rather than visual. Its tale oozes; it doesn't "break." It lends itself more readily to leisurely, theme-oriented reporting that sometimes seems to start and finish in the same place. With limited exceptions, school leaders shun the limelight. Comfortable in their in-house managerial roles but often uneasy as media personalities, they tend to believe the journalistic adage that misdeeds are covered more intensively than good deeds. Like the Presidential aspirant who saw no sense in spending an hour courting a 25-year-old New Hampshire truck driver's vote, they want more bang for their media buck. By and large, they are baffled by the media's coolness to what they may consider to be landmark events and developments: improved reading scores, a decrease in school violence, a new wrinkle in school finance. But they do not lose sleep over the short shrift these items get; the media's point system is no mystery. Still, they aren't quite sure why they come up short.

Equally depressing for education's hypothetical fan club, the schools are too often left behind when larger issues and concepts reach the pages, screens, and airwaves of the mass media. Education still materializes too often in throwaway listings by politicians or talk-show guests("... we must improve our deteriorating highways, health care, schools, housing...") and not often enough as a free-standing, many-sided endeavor that demands full-bodied commentary. Even the upscale population slice that reads the Wall Street Journal and watches documentaries on public television shows but limited interest in stories about schools and learning. Given a choice between pieces of roughly similar significance on, say, the repression of a freedom movement in a feudal monarchy and a shocker about a major shortfall in urban school funds, the national media will invariably give the foreign story higher billing.

If"the vacuum of public discourse is filled on the cheap," as the media analyst Todd Gitlin asserts, then the national conversation on the schools will also be a cut-rate product. What's more, it may become a tilted dialogue in which public education's institutional malaises take precedence over the limitless potential of individual Americans to become educated citizens.

In varying degrees, all of the media, especially newspapers, compete for the same coterie of upper-crust consumers. Though good stories usually come first, whatever the subject, the subtle distinctions between "elite" news and "people's" stories are not hard to spot. Education is customarily an easy cull from the "elite" barrel and an uncomplaining space- or screen-filler in the community-news segment. And yet, as Neil Postman has written, "The subject of education is vibrant and filled with challenge precisely because no one knows what it should be like in our own times. We are safe in assuming only that what we are presently doing is wrong ..."

Searching the media for clues to the directions public education may take in the rest of this century may be an unsatisfying endeavor but it can sometimes be an exhilarating one. The volume of sustained coverage in urban and community newspapers has never been greater even though larger reckonings remain hard to grasp. We still face a daily hard core of stories that could have been written or broadcast as easily, and with as much relevance, in the 1960's as in the 1990's: items on creative teachers, financial crises, strikes, parent activism, and a host of always current but basically repetitive issues.

The task for educational journalism is not simply to ride popular bandwagons but somehow to capture the larger landscape--and to stay with it as it changes. The journalist seeking to report accurately and fully on education must understand the explicit ties that bind the schools to economic development, the real meaning of the sea changes occurring in the early 1990's in Kentucky, Chicago, and Rochester, N.Y., the evolving links between education and the human services, and, far from least, the fundamentally altered patterns of family life, especially in those corners of American society where poverty and failure are commonplace. This is a tall order, almost as demanding as coming to terms with the half-forgotten premises of our schools: that they further the accumulation of knowledge and wisdom by the nation's young people.

Vol. 11, Issue 17, Page 36

Published in Print: January 15, 1992, as The Media and the Schools
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