Saturday, December 05, 2009

IS EDUCATION NEWS FALLING OFF THE FRONT PAGES? +REPORT: Invisible: 1.4 Percent Coverage for Education is Not Enough

By Lesli A. Maxwell | Education Week | Vol. 29, Issue 14, Pages 1,12

Published in Print: December 9, 2009 - WASHINGTON - 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.

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.”


Sunday December 6, 2009

Invisible: 1.4 Percent Coverage for Education is Not Enough

Media & Journalism, Education, Competitiveness, U.S. Department of Education

Darrell M. West, Vice President and Director, Governance Studies
Grover J. "Russ" Whitehurst, Senior Fellow, Governance Studies
E.J. Dionne, Jr., Senior Fellow, Governance Studies

The Brookings Institution

Executive Summary

  • Download Complete Report PDF
A mother and children read the newspaper in Washington.

<<A mother and children read the newspaper in Washington. - Reuters/Jonathan Ernst

December 02, 2009 — News coverage is important to every policy area. While some people have personal knowledge of certain topics, many rely on mass media for direct, up-to-date, and in-depth reporting. This is especially the case with education because only a third of American adults currently have a child in elementary or secondary school. What most people know about schools comes from newspapers, radio, television, the Internet, or blogs – or from memories of their own experiences, often from long ago.

Yet despite the importance of media coverage for public understanding of education, news reporting on schools is scant. As we note in this report, there is virtually no national coverage of education. During the first nine months of 2009, only 1.4 percent of national news coverage from television, newspapers, news Web sites, and radio dealt with education.1 This paucity of coverage is not unique to 2009. In 2008, only 0.7 percent of national news coverage involved education, while 1.0 percent did so in 2007. This makes it difficult for the public to follow the issues at stake in our education debates and to understand how to improve school performance.

Community colleges fare especially poorly in the constellation of news coverage. Of all the education reporting, only 2.9 percent is devoted to two-year institutions of higher learning, compared to 12.5 percent for colleges and 14.5 percent for universities (the rest goes to elementary and secondary schools). The lack of attention devoted to community colleges is noteworthy because even though they enroll 6.7 million students compared to 11.2 million for colleges and universities, two-year schools attract only one-tenth the news coverage of four-year institutions. From the standpoint of national media coverage, community colleges barely exist.

Of the education news that is reported across any education level, little relates to school policies and ways to improve the curriculum or learning processes. There was hardly any coverage of school reform, teacher quality, or other matters thought to be crucial for educational attainment. Instead, most stories this year dealt with budget problems, school crime, and the H1N1 flu outbreak. The emphasis on school budgets isn’t surprising given the country’s dismal economic news. Indeed, educational finance and the economic stimulus package together made up 17 percent of all national stories this year. However, the lack of coverage of the actual work of schools remains a significant problem.

It is hard for newspapers and television stations to assign reporters to cover the schools when circulation and advertising revenues have fallen. Double-digit unemployment shrinks the base of newspaper subscribers, and the market for the products and services that are advertised in newspapers. And newspapers are facing well-known challenges from other areas, leading to buy-outs and layoffs across the industry. The impact on newspapers and broadcast outlets has been dramatic and has led to expanding news holes, leaving less room for coverage not only of education but also of many other policy areas. Even if the economy recovers, long-term trends do not bode well for education coverage. Newspaper subscriptions peaked in the late 1980s. From 1990 to 2008, the number of subscribers declined steadily, for a total decline of 22 percent2, at the same time that the population of the U.S. increased by 22 percent. Beat reporters who cover education and other policy areas are being laid off and not replaced.

News aggregators focusing on education bring together reports and analyses from around the country. Citizen-initiated journalism such as blogs, YouTube videos, Facebook postings, I-comments, and the like are helpful with breaking news and commentary on events ranging from shootings to flu outbreaks. Local blogs can encourage substantive debate on education issues, and school systems have used new technologies to keep parents in closer touch with their children’s schools and educational progress. But none of these can replace regular, systematic and ongoing coverage of education by news outlets. In terms of print outlets, there are important differences in the way local and national media cover education. Local outlets are more likely to cover the substance of school policy than national media. Local journalists go to school board meetings, interview local education officials, and keep track of debates that unfold over curricula, teacher quality, and structural reforms. They are more closely tied to the actual content of education because people in the community worry about the education young people are receiving, especially parents who read their publications and watch their broadcasts. But it is difficult for local outlets to maintain the quality of their coverage in the face of financial cutbacks and staff layoffs.

In the conclusion of this report, we make a number of recommendations to improve the coverage of education. The disappearance of education news coverage is so pervasive and rooted in so many different causes that it will take a concerted effort on the part of all involved (news organizations, education administrators, government leaders, school boards, parents, students, and community leaders) to slow, much less reverse, this trend.

We believe there are a number of steps for improving the quantity and quality of education coverage that will make a positive difference:

  1. Schools need to understand that communications is important to their education mission. Time spent to inform reporters, parents, and the community about what is happening inside schools is a good investment in public understanding.
  2. Young people can be a valuable part of this communications effort through student newspapers, social media, citizen journalism, and other outreach activities. Budget cutbacks are reducing extracurricular activities of all kinds, including student newspapers. Some school officials discourage student reporters from asking difficult questions or raising controversial issues. In fact, student journalism of this kind should be encouraged. Student newspapers often lead the media to important education stories.
  3. Government officials and education administrators must draw attention to education policy through events, forums, and speeches that highlight noteworthy reforms and discuss ongoing problems and challenges. Public officials have an agenda-setting and problem-definition capacity that can drive news coverage. This is especially the case for community colleges in order to boost their local, regional, and national profile.
  4. Reporting should become more proactive and less reactive. Much of coverage today is episodic and driven by events. Focusing on long-term trends would help to inform communities about the content of education and ways schools are seeking to move forward.
  5. Reporters should draw on education research in the way that health care reporters use medical research. Journalists who follow medicine and health often highlight new studies, clinical trials, or other evaluative research that help consumers understand new treatments, new drugs, and new medical therapies. There should be better use of education research that evaluates school reforms, teacher quality, and classroom practices.
  6. Newspapers and other media outlets that have cut back on education reporting should reconsider these decisions both on public interest grounds, and also because there is widespread interest in the issues surrounding education – on the part of parents especially, but also among employers and other community leaders. It is only through on-going, day-to-day beat reporting that journalists develop an understanding of the subject, gain a sure feel for the issues at stake, and develop sources who keep them informed.
  7. Media publishers and editors should find ways to integrate quality education blogs and forms of citizen journalism into press outlets. Newspapers could develop their own blogs and community talkbacks, and also provide links to education blogs that already exist in the community. This could help fill the policy void left by staff cutbacks on education beats.
  8. Foundations and non-profit organizations should focus on developing alternative forms of education coverage both nationally and locally. At both levels, they should encourage more emphasis on reporting about teaching and teaching methods, curricula, course offerings, testing and other issues that directly affect learning and are receiving scant ongoing coverage. They can also encourage both investigative journalism and in-depth reporting of particularly successful (and troubled) schools and school systems.

[1] Coverage is defined as the percent of space devoted to a topic as a percentage of the overall space available for content (number of words for print and online, amount of time for radio and television).

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