Report: Education system a mystery for lack of media coverage

A December report from the Brookings Institution decries the lack of education coverage in today’s media. According to the report, only 1.4 percent of media coverage in the first nine months of 2009 dealt with education.

Moreover, notes the report, reporters are often drawn to the low-hanging fruit, leaving readers with little information about the really key issues, like what or how students should be learning:

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.

(flickr, cc; Conspirator)
(flickr, cc; Conspirator)

The report acknowledges that with advertising revenue and circulation numbers plummeting— and newsrooms rife with layoffs— this trend may be hard to reverse. Although the report acknowledges the benefits of tools such as blogs and Facebook pages for providing updates, say on school closings or flu outbreaks, it alleges that such innovations are not enough.

None of these new communication avenues, says the report, “can replace regular, systematic and ongoing coverage of education by news outlets.”

Recommendations range from encouraging reporters to focus on long-term trends (instead of reacting to events) to suggesting that schools encourage students to tackle controversial issues. Below, read them in full:

* 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.

* 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.

* 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.

* 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.

* 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.

* 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.

* 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.

* 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.

Hat tip to Alan Gottlieb at Education News Colorado, who spotted the report.

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