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Educators Link Declining Confidence In Schools to Negative Press Coverage

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A large majority of educators believe that negative media coverage is responsible for a decline in confidence in the public schools, while education reporters themselves see room for improvement, according to a new survey.

Members of the public, meanwhile, want more coverage of ideas and programs that offer solutions to education problems, the study found. But more than 70 percent of the parents polled said that they rely on personal observations and conversations--not the local news media--to gather information about their communities' schools.

And all three groups agreed that education news would be better if it included more in-depth reporting.

The survey, "Good News, Bad News: What People Really Think About the Education Press," was conducted for the Washington-based Education Writers Association by Public Agenda, a nonprofit, nonpartisan New York City research organization.

Results of the poll were scheduled to be presented late last week at the association's 50th-anniversary seminar in Washington.

Lisa Walker, the association's executive director, said the group commissioned the study in response to continuing criticism of education coverage.

"There's stuff we can look at and learn from," she said of the findings. But it might be difficult for reporters to write lengthier stories, she added, pointing out that "there's been a continuing struggle over the last couple of years as papers have gone to shorter and shorter stories."

The study included focus groups; one-on-one interviews; telephone interviews with 500 members of the public, including an oversampling of 200 parents; and mail surveys of 269 reporters and editors and 303 superintendents and teachers. The margin of error for the telephone poll is plus or minus 4 percent.

Lack of Context

Superintendents and teachers took a dim view of education coverage, calling for the press to "stop looking for the negative twist to stories," the study found.

Members of the press and educators were asked to react to a series of statements by saying whether they contained "a lot of truth" or "some truth."

Among the educators who responded, more than 90 percent agreed that the media's news judgments are driven by "what sells"; 89 percent said that the media report low achievement without giving people enough context to evaluate the information fairly.

More than 85 percent of the educators polled said the media unfairly dwell on conflict and failure, 79 percent said reporters use quotes and statistics out of context, and 84 percent said they had often or sometimes seen a story that misrepresented what was really happening in schools.

Negative coverage has caused much of the decline in public confidence in the schools, more than 75 percent of the educators said.

In contrast, 62 percent of the reporters and editors who responded said that educators unfairly blame the press for simply reporting the news.

The media members also regard the general public--not educators--as their primary audience, the study found.

Still, reporters and editors were open to criticism, with 81 percent concurring that they are too dependent on school officials for information.

The public viewed television news as far more biased than print reports, the study found.

Half of the parents surveyed said that local newspaper education coverage was fair or poor.

While parents said they relied on the local media for useful information about nearby communities' schools, 64 percent said that they would rely "a little" or "not at all" on the media in choosing a school or district for a child.

Instead, they cited other parents, real estate agents, police departments, and teachers as better sources of information.

The survey comes as many news organizations are adopting the tenets of so-called public or civic journalism. The approach seeks to give the media a more positive role in fostering public discussion and problem-solving. ("Civic Journalism Putting Spotlight On School Issues," April 9, 1997.)

For More Information:

Copies of "Good News, Bad News: What People Really Think About the Education Press'' are available for a nominal fee, which has yet to be determined, from the Education Writers Association, 1331 H St. N.W., Suite 307, Washington, D.C. 20005; by fax at (202) 637-9707; or by e-mail at [email protected]

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