Is the Media Biased in Favor of Reform? It Depends on the Reform

By 04/04/2012

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Paul Farhi of the Washington Post created a stir this weekend with an American Journalism Review article ripping mainstream education reporting for being uncritical of school reform. His comments were particularly pointed when it came to television coverage of the subject, especially NBC’s.

NBC has concentrated on initiatives favored by self-styled education reformers. The network has been particularly generous to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which has poured hundreds of millions of dollars into promoting teacher merit pay proposals and privately run charter schools – an agenda strongly opposed by many public school teachers, labor unions and educators.

During its first “Education Nation” summit in 2010, for example, “NBC Nightly News” aired a profile of a Gates Foundation initiative, “Measures of Effective Teaching,” which seeks to create a database of effective teaching methods. The reporter was former NBC anchorman Tom Brokaw. During the second summit last fall, Brokaw showed up on “Today” with Melinda Gates to discuss the same Gates initiative. Turning from reporter to advocate, Brokaw told host Natalie Morales, “So what Bill and Melinda have done, and it’s a great credit to them, and it’s a great gift to this country, is that they have taken the kind of episodic values that we know about teaching and they’ve put them together in a way that everyone can learn from them. So that’s a big, big step.”

And Farhi’s not wrong; the media has indeed been obsessed with the teacher effectiveness agenda. That’s one finding of my own analysis of education reporting that I just published in Education Next. My team and I coded all of the national education stories published in 2011 in the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, USA Today, and Associated Press. And sure enough, teacher-related policies were covered more than any other topic.

But can you really blame the reporters? As former Secretary of Education Rod Paige once explained to me, journalists are in the “conflict business,” and there was a ton of conflict around teacher policies (LIFO, teacher evaluations, tenure, etc.) in 2011. (Remember Madison and Columbus?)

Farhi and I also agree about the downer tone of much reporting. Results from the various NAEP exams were big drivers of education coverage in 2011 too—and the presentation was overwhelmingly negative, even though many groups of students made historic gains. Cheating by teachers was another major story—and we all know how uplifting that one is.

Where I disagree with Farhi, however, is in lumping all reforms together. Consider school vouchers. The Wall Street Journal’s editorial page may have declared 2011 the “year of school choice,” but its news side dedicated exactly zero articles to the topic. And it wasn’t alone; only the A.P. published a story (just one) on the wave of voucher and tax credit bills enacted by Republican legislatures and governors last year. This wasn’t important enough a development to find space in the Times or Washington Post?

So Farhi could have been more precise: Journalists (especially broadcast journalists) are enamored with policies put forward by lefty reformers. And with the mainstream media’s liberal leanings, this makes sense. And goes to show, once again, that the most interesting fights in education reform today are intramural battles among the progressive elite.

See my full Education Next article here.

-Mike Petrilli

This blog entry also appears on the Fordham Institute’s Flypaper blog.

Comment on this article
  • Deborah Perkins-Gough says:

    Whoa–what am I missing? How is the “teacher effectivness agenda” a “policy put forth by lefty reformers”? Certainly the Gates Foundation initiatives are not viewed as a “lefty” reform by any educator I know. Seems like you took an awfully big leap there.

  • Mike Petrilli says:

    That’s what’s crazy about the way anti-reformers depict reformers. I dare you to find more than a handful of Gates Foundation staffers who didn’t vote for President Obama. Same for Michelle Rhee’s group, DFER, etc. What’s driving them is a concern about the achievement gap and America’s lack of social mobility, and they are willing to use forceful government intervention to address the issues. They are lefties!

  • jeffrey miller says:

    Ah, Mike? Just because YOU say the elite media lefties covered their pet concerns does not axiomatically mean you are right, so to speak. And why should I care what the Wall Street Journal says? Listen, the Obama Administration has been open to school choice and the rate of charter school openings has been impressive. Your analysis does nothing to show how the media have missed the voucher tsunami. Teacher effectiveness is a big issue and a relatively new focus of reformers thanks to RttT. Isn’t that what you want?

    Voices like mine are missing in the national media. So far as I can tell, there are few articles written noting how the entire education reform agenda since 1983 has been more a political jeremiad than anything based upon objective data. That the NAEP data presentations failed your personal test for showing good news, you and your political kin have only yourselves to blame. Conservative think tanks and media outlets have been playing the Chicken Little card since 1983 so, you won–the media, even the liberal [sic] media have been well-trained to paint a picture of gloom and doom.

  • Deborah Perkins-Gough says:

    Mike, I think our disconnect is based on your definition of anyone who voted for President Obama or who is concerned about the achievement gap as a “lefty.” In contrast, I view Obama is a centrist who has embraced and expanded on the corporate-style education reforms implemented by that well-know lefty, George W. Bush.

  • Caroline Grannan says:

    Mike Petrilli, SURELY a savvy insider like you knows that these people are Villagers, not lefties. It’s mystifying that you would pretend otherwise.

    I’m offering my blog post explaining that even though I’m sure it’s not the best description around, because it’s at my fingertips.

  • Robert Williamson says:

    Seems like this discussion has become so verbose, sight of the real reform issues has been lost. They are:
    1. Is there a benefit from unions, public schools, and tenure other than to teachers, administrators, union leaders and Democratic politicians and shouldn’t the reform be to eliminate them.

    2. Should all barriers to instituting the voucher system be eliminated.

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