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Is Education News Falling Off Front Pages?

By Lesli A. Maxwell — December 04, 2009 8 min read
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Billions in federal economic-stimulus dollars are slated to be spent to help improve public education, but Americans relying on traditional news outlets are likely to find out little, if anything, about what that effort might mean for the schools in their communities, a new report suggests.

That’s because education coverage of any type barely registered in newspapers and on news Web sites, on television news broadcasts, or on the radio airwaves in the first nine months of this year, according to the report, released here this week by the Brookings Institution.

Between January and September, education stories made up just 1.4 percent of all top national news, the study found. That number was even worse in the previous two years. Substantive stories about the main enterprise of K-12 schools—teaching and learning—were even more rare. And coverage of higher education, especially community colleges, was virtually nonexistent.

“Education, in terms of important stories, has a low place in the hierarchy,” Brookings senior fellow Grover J. “Russ” Whitehurst said during a presentation last week of the findings. Mr. Whitehurst, a co-author of the report, is a former director of the federal Institute of Education Sciences.

As federal policy leaves a larger imprint on what happens in public schools, traditional media organizations, particularly daily newspapers, are struggling to survive. Circulation and advertising revenues have plummeted, forcing large numbers of buyouts and layoffs of reporters across the industry, including at Education Week. The schools beat—never a marquee assignment in most newsrooms—has been a casualty, not only in the national media, but at local outlets as well.

The result is a fast-moving, high-stakes policy environment that some observers say isn’t getting enough scrutiny in the mainstream media, even as the number of education blogs and Internet sites dedicated to school-related topics proliferates.

“Our members are getting laid off or are encouraged to find other jobs or take on other beats in addition to education,” said Linda Perlstein, the public editor for the National Education Writers Association, based in Washington, and a former education reporter for The Washington Post. “It’s so unfortunate, because reporters are uniquely positioned to connect the policy with the real world, especially in education.

What Makes Headlines?

A look at the five biggest weeks for education coverage since January 2007 shows that stories with a political or judicial angle received the most attention.

BRIC ARCHIVE

SOURCE: Project for Excellence in Journalism

“But a lot of reporters feel like they are just getting by and just covering the bare minimum.”

The number of education journalists no longer on the beat is hard to come by, but EWA has seen its membership fall by 18 percent over the past three years, said Lisa Walker, the organization’s executive director. Job losses, as well as newsrooms’ (mostly at print-journalism operations) ceasing to cover the costs of membership for individual reporters are responsible for the decline, she said.

If national education coverage in the general media ever had a heyday, it was the middle to late 1980s, when newspapers were at their financial and reporting peaks, said Tom Rosenstiel, the director of the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism, who helped collect and analyze some of the data for the Brookings report.

“That’s when surviving morning newspapers were strong enough financially to expand coverage in all aspects of the community that they thought would be interesting to their demographic,” Mr. Rosenstiel said. “You saw specialized, interpretative reporting in education and other topics that were of interest to affluent, suburban readers.”

Superficial Coverage?

For metropolitan dailies, education coverage has always been a key part of their franchises and will likely remain so, he said. But as newsrooms continue to shrink and lose reporters with deep knowledge and long lists of sources, readers will lose out on in-depth stories.

Instead, the coverage will become more institutional, Mr. Rosenstiel said, especially as reporters new to or unfamiliar with the beat rely heavily on sources such as teachers’ unions, top administrators, and parent organizations to get at the stories, he said.

“So what happens is that your coverage becomes a reflection of your sources,” he said, “and when you are talking to these folks, inevitably there’s a pull to things like pitched battles over funds, politics, and education ideology.”

At The Sacramento Bee, the daily newspaper in California’s capital city, two reporters now cover the region’s multiple school districts, and one covers higher education, said Joyce Terhaar, the paper’s managing editor.

Just a few years ago, the newspaper operated three suburban bureaus, each staffed with a schools writer who could more closely cover the districts in those communities, while two K-12 reporters and one higher education reporter worked out of the main newsroom. Like most dailies, The Bee has downsized through buyouts and layoffs, forcing editors to reallocate assignments and eliminate some beats, such as science.

“In our newsroom, and I think in most newsrooms now, it would be fair to say that there’s just not the depth of coverage that there used to be,” Ms. Terhaar said. “Still, I don’t think that education is the beat that will get hurt in our newsroom. There are other things that we would definitely stop covering first.”

According to the study released by Brookings, a Washington think tank, the school-related stories that have so far received the most media attention in 2009 involved just a few subjects, sometimes only tangentially related to what goes on inside classrooms: the H1N1 flu virus, school budgets, crime in schools, and education politics.

Coverage spiked in September, for example, when the controversy surrounding President Barack Obama’s back-to-school speech to students erupted into a weeklong political story.

“If not for President Obama’s back-to-school speech and the swine flu, education disappears even more,” said E.J. Dionne Jr., a Brookings senior fellow and nationally syndicated columnist for The Washington Post who is another co-author of the study.

“There’s a great bias toward covering ideological issues that have only a marginal impact on teachers and students,” he said. “Our education coverage too often mirrors our political coverage.”

In calculating how education stories stacked up against other topics, the study’s authors counted what they called “prominent” stories—those that appeared on the front pages of newspapers, in the early parts of a TV or radio news broadcast, or in the top listings of stories on news Web sites. Some observers said that methodology skewed the results because it overlooked many important stories that did not receive top billing by editors.

Ms. Perlstein, the former Washington Post reporter, pointed out that on many days, that newspaper’s Metro section carries multiple substantive education stories. It has also recently launched a special online education section.

The report generally concludes that local newspapers are much more likely than national general-interest publications to cover the substance of education. The authors examined schools coverage in daily newspapers in Des Moines, Iowa; Minneapolis; Phoenix; and Providence, R.I. to reach that conclusion. But it cautions that the diminishing resources at daily papers remain a threat to that coverage, even as many are beefing up the education-related stories and information on their Web sites.

Charles Maranzano Jr., the superintendent of the 2,200-student Hopatcong, N.J., district, said while the local newspaper covers some education news in his district, there is no assigned beat reporter who comes to school board meetings or whom he can call reliably to pitch stories. That has made his job of communicating what goes on in his schools, especially good things, a major challenge, he said.

Mr. Maranzano, in fact, writes a blog to keep district employees, parents, and community members informed about what’s happening in the school system.

“If you’re going to get any media about what works in your schools, you’re going to have to generate it yourself,” he said. “It’s up to me to generate good copy, get it out there, and hope that they will bite.”

But one veteran education reporter who spoke on a panel at the Brookings event said it’s often school officials who present the biggest barrier to producing in-depth coverage.

“To write about classroom issues, we need more access to classrooms and to schools than we normally get,” said Dale Mezzacappa, a former reporter at The Philadelphia Inquirer who now writes for the Philadelphia Public School Notebook, a specialty publication that publishes a newspaper six times a year and uses a daily blog and other venues on its Web site to report news.

“To build up the expertise to write about what works, you need access. We need educators to understand that,” she said.

Online in New York

To be sure, education bloggers and “citizen journalists” writing about schools are plentiful on the Internet, providing what the Brookings report calls a “supplement” to the work of traditional news outlets, but not a “substitute for continuous beat reporting.”

Some observers say the advent of online publications such as GothamSchools, which does original reporting on the New York City schools and closely tracks policy developments nationwide, holds a lot of promise for education journalism. Those sites are seen as increasingly helping to fill a void in mainstream reporting by providing in-depth coverage of schools.

The Web-only GothamSchools, now in its second year, is supported by a Manhattan philanthropy and individual donors. In addition to its own reporting, it provides a venue for parents, teachers, and community members to debate about what’s going on in the city schools.

“We think there is a demand for substantive stories about education, and we’ve seen evidence that people want to read what we write,” said Elizabeth Green, the editor of GothamSchools. “And it’s not just insiders who care because it’s about their jobs, but also mainstream outlets that pick up our stories that we break.”

A version of this article appeared in the December 09, 2009 edition of Education Week as Is Education News Falling Off Front Pages?

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