Is the Decline of the Mainstream Press Bad for Education?



By 12/03/2009

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Education is the topic of only 1.4 percent of news coverage by television, radio, newspapers and news web sites, a report issued by the Brookings Institution tells us. That percentage is nothing peculiar to this year, the Brookings scholars go on to say.  In 2007, the percentage was only 1.0 percent.

Should we be distressed?  Perhaps, but we shouldn’t be surprised. News is largely entertainment, and what is entertaining are murders, rapes, airplane crashes, and the comings and goings of celebrities.  Also, the public wants to know what the weather will be like this afternoon, tomorrow, and early next week, and traffic flow on every expressway in the metropolitan area needs to be duly reported.  Iran, Afghanistan, unemployment rates, and the stock market all take their daily share of the total. If education is to be newsworthy, it requires that someone be shot at school, or a snowstorm be large enough to shutter the classrooms, or some unusual kid has to do well at a science fair, if a good news story is needed to add some semblance of balance.

All that does not leave much space for serious discussion of the issues in any specific policy arena, education or otherwise.

But as Robert Pondiscio concluded in his post about the Brookings report at the Core Knowledge Blog, “These are not necessarily bad trends.  And whether they are or not, they can’t be stopped.”

So the policy wonks in education should not expect their work to get much coverage in the mainstream media.  But they can take pride in the fact that their efforts in highly specialized media will attract all the more attention from policy makers, simply because no one else is saying much.

The major challenge to education reform comes not from the mainstream media’s lack of attention but from those with vested interests in the status quo. Were it not for the specialized outlets that keep the education reform conversation going, they would be totally in charge.

All hail to the education blogs, the Brookings Institution, AEI, Hoover Institution’s Koret Task Force, Education Sector, Education Trust, Fordham Foundation, and, yes, Education Week, who keep those who care about the future of American education well informed.

Who gives a hoot about the amount of coverage given education by the Slippery Rock Daily?




Comment on this article
  • Peter Meyer says:

    As a longtime victim of a local “press” that consists of one newspaper, which is attached to the Chamber, which is attached to the Union, which is attached to EVERYONE, I know of what Brookings speaks. But having won election to the Board of Ed with an email campaign, I would echo Mr. Peterson’s optimism: who gives a hoot about the Slippery Rock Daily! In fact, even in our tiny tiny district (2000 kids and falling), where school lunch menus and the football game are still the standard of traditional education reporting, we have “Unmuffled” (http://educationinhudson.blogspot.com/), which should give us all hope for the future.

  • George Mitchell says:

    Paul observes, “[T]he policy wonks in education…can take pride in the fact that their efforts in highly specialized media will attract all the more attention from policy makers, simply because no one else is saying much.”

    But is it really correct that no one else is saying much? Paul’s separate post about union political spending describes how the status quo speaks to policy makers. Their form of speech attracts lots of attention.

    The imminent demise of the DC Scholarship Program, (positive research notwithstanding) suggests to me that NEA/AFT still speak quite loudly to policy makers.

    This skeptical assessment is not intended to diminish the indispensable contribution made by Ed Next and other outlets cited by Paul. Absent their efforts things would be truly discouraging.

  • George Mitchell says:

    Mike Antonucci has some interesting followup commentary on this issue. See below from his latest newsletter.

    Readers Are Just Not That Into You: Education Reporting and “Stakeholders.” The reaction to last week’s Brookings Institution report and panel on the state of education journalism helped illustrate the problem the organization was trying to address. Virtually all of the commentary came from people employed in the business. The rest of the media, never mind the public, never noticed.

    Alexander Russo at This Week in Education was skeptical even before the panel met, and there’s still a back and forth going on about what he wrote. Flypaper was more positive, but noted the ground had been covered recently. Gotham Schools said, yes, there’s a problem; help us fix it. And the Education Writers Association doubled down with a two-part post (here and here) headlined “Everything that’s wrong with us.” NEA sent a staffer to observe the proceedings. He no doubt noted the absence of a single mention of unions, and went home happy.

    The Brookings report noted that the biggest “education” stories of the year were actually not about education at all. They touched on presidential politics, or health, or scandal, or some other topic more appealing to a mass audience. Ay, there’s the rub.

    For while there are many great education stories and great education reporters and great education coverage, education news remains a very tiny niche in a vast panoply of topics for Americans to read and care about. As tough as it may be to hear, education news just doesn’t make the cut.

    How else to explain that many years after the fact, the public is ignorant and/or apathetic about the No Child Left Behind Act and charter schools, among many other subjects? We can blame it on reporters, editors, the economy, lack of access to classrooms, or whatever else you want. But the real issue is the general public just doesn’t care.

    There’s a chicken/egg element to why this is so, but education coverage – along with much education policy – is designed with “stakeholders” in mind. That is, we write about education for people with a vested interest in education – employees, elected officials, lobbying groups and parents. The rest – a large majority of the total public – have no direct and immediate stake except for the taxes they pay to keep the system running.

    If that seems harsh, take a look at any nice balanced story about teacher contract negotiations. There’s a quote from a school board spokesman, there’s a quote from a teacher union spokesman, and there might be a quote from a parent about the effect a possible strike would have on her and her children. Anything from property holders? Consumers? Small business owners? Retirees?

    The funny thing is these people are the real “stakeholders,” according to the origins of the term. The stakeholder is the guy who holds the money bet by two other guys while they determine who gets all of it. When the game is over, the stakeholder is left empty-handed.

    There’s nothing wrong with reporting that way. As someone who writes about a niche within a niche, I’m limited to readers who already hold an interest in the topic – just as I did when I wrote about Byzantine history. (There are more similarities than you might imagine.) You can only expand into a general audience incrementally that way. But the Brookings study laments education’s “invisibility” in the major media and among the general public. That’s a problem easily remedied: Write about what they care about, not what you think they ought to care about. Otherwise, embrace your small, dedicated audience of “stakeholders” and write for them.

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