‘Complicating the narratives’ in education journalism

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A viral thought piece on how journalists can tell more complex, less cartoonish stories is deeply relevant to education journalism. But shifting the way we work isn’t necessarily going to be easy.

 By Alexander Russo

When I first came across Amanda Ripley’s recent piece on the media’s tendencies towards over-simplification, lens-narrowing, and conflict-highlighting, I was intrigued. It turns out that I was far from the only one.

In the three weeks since it was published, praise for Complicating the Narratives from journalists and journalism-watchers has been persistent and nearly universal. The Washington Post’s media columnist Margaret Sullivan described it as “a long, important, at times hard-to-accept piece about how journalists could break through tribalism and do better work.”

“A lot of people who seem to be craving something different,” Ripley, who is known for her education writing, told me in a recent interview. “The response so far has been hugely reassuring and exciting.”

Not bad for a thought piece that comes in at nearly 10,000 words. (There’s a much shorter version in The Guardian US here.)

complicating the narratives amanda ripley 2

Cover art for Ripley’s piece, published June 27

There hasn’t been much discussion of the piece among the education journalists I follow – at least, not yet. But several of the problems Ripley identifies are chronic challenges for education reporting. Any regular reader of education news knows that far too many stories are written in ways that exaggerate differences and present cartoonish, simplistic versions of events.

On the phone, Ripley is frank about the problems she sees in education journalism – problems that are so persistent that she says they discourage her from reading education coverage as much as she’d otherwise want to. “Nine times out of ten, education journalists inadvertently snuff the complexity out of the conversation,” says Ripley.

This kind of coverage is not only predictable and boring, according to Ripley. It’s also unlikely to help nudge readers away from views that may have become fixed. “It just makes readers more entrenched in their pre-existing worldviews,” she says.

A handful of folks have taken issue with some of what Ripley is saying, and it’s worth noting that Ripley is a fellow with the Emerson Collective and a contributor to the Atlantic. But overall I’m inclined to agree with her about the problems she’s identified and – to a lesser extent – the solutions.

Those of us who write about education may think of ourselves as objective seekers of the truth, but we choose and frame and report our stories in ways that aren’t always as self-reflective as may be necessary. In the process, we may be allowing ourselves to be used by polarizing forces that want us to take up their causes, playing the role of the kids goading classmates to fight rather than the role of translators we aim to be.

“The goal is not to wash away the conflict,” Ripley says in a Nieman Lab write-up of her piece, which was commissioned by the Solutions Journalism Network. “It’s to help people wade in and out of the muck (and back in again) with their humanity intact.”

six steps

Six steps recommended in Complicating the Narratives

Ripley is far from the first person to say that journalism focuses too much on simple narratives and black-and-white conflict.

Three summers ago, The Teacher Project’s Sarah Carr reflected on the need to include more nuance and contextualization in the coverage of New Orleans schools. Earlier this year, I wrote about how media coverage of Betsy DeVos had often failed to provide nuance or context.

But what’s fresh and helpful about Ripley’s perspective is that she spends most of her time showing us there are other ways to select, report, and write education stories.

Some of her suggestions involve a dramatic rethinking of how news outlets work. But many of them are feasible, low-effort strategies that could greatly improve the quality of the stories being told, without requiring any newsroom revolution.

Finding and highlighting counterintuitive information – narrative-breaking, basically – is the best way to report and write education stories, according to Ripley.

And the best way to break the narrative is to make interviews with kids central to your reporting. “Don’t use student quotes as garnishes,” says Ripley. “Really listen to them. They will necessarily complicate your narrative because they don’t have coherent narratives that align to adult viewpoints. They’ll tell you contradictory things. But you have to listen to them.”

This seems like enormously valuable advice. And it probably also holds true for interviewing everyday parents and teachers.

According to Ripley, the trick when you’re interviewing someone with a strong set of views is to dig into what’s behind those views: “What is making this person so convinced, so emotionally charged on the issue?”

Figuring out what experiences or values are behind someone’s strong position – and then considering how to include it in your coverage – makes all the difference.

amanda ripley twitter headshot

Ripley is a frequent contributor to The Atlantic and an Emerson Fellow. 

Having written several articles and a book about education, Ripley says that education coverage was near the top of her mind when writing the piece

“Education journalists tend to hover around a conflict, throwing gasoline on it every 20 minutes or so but never asking…’What’s driving people to have these very predictable positions?’”

She also admits she’s experienced the pull towards simplistic storytelling herself.

“One of the reasons I started writing less about education in the last year or two is that I could feel myself getting sucked into this vortex. I was starting to not see the world the way regular people see it. I started to think I knew the answers ahead of time.”

That kind of journalism has a toxic effect on reader trust, Ripley says. “We think we’re being very clever and stealthy about our own theories of the case, but we’re not.” Our actions during interviews give us away. We stop writing (or typing). Our eyes glaze over. “People can tell.”

We’re sticking to our pre-conceived narrative, and the person sharing information with us eventually figures that out. The conversation – or at least our notes about it – turns into something that’s not entirely authentic. And the resulting story usually doesn’t include the contradictions or complications would have made it deeper.

I’ve certainly experienced the same know-it-all sensation Ripley is describing, which hindered my ability to grasp emerging issues like over-testing and diminished economic mobility as quickly as I should have.

And at times I have been made aware that my reporting had become part of the problem. I once asked former Education Trust president Kati Haycock such a leading series of questions that at a certain point she asked me if she’d said what I needed her to say yet.

In her own writing, Ripley says she realized that she was thinking about the role of test scores in ways that were closed and incomplete.

We’re probably not the only ones. How about you?

Ripley declines to name outlets, bylines, or even instances of over-simplified education coverage, but I’m not that wise or squeamish.

Among the examples that come to mind include the Hechinger Report’s recent investigation into disproportionately white charter schools, which failed to connect the issue with the much larger issues of systemic school segregation. (My critique of the story is here.)

Some critics have complained, though I don’t agree in this case, that Eliza Shapiro’s recent Politico magazine profile of Camden superintendent Paymon Rouhanifard failed to provide the nuance that his five-year tenure requires.

To be fair, there are also many examples of nuanced education coverage.

Ripley cites a Washington Post piece by Emma Brown, Valerie Strauss and Perry Stein looking back at the rise and fall of the DC public schools.

“The story doesn’t just go up and down. It explains things that were categorically mishandled. And then, just when you’re feeling righteous indignation, it tells you that, on the other hand, teachers [are] getting paid more, there’s been important progress on NAEP scores. And then, when you’re about to become overly exuberant, brings you back again.”

I have some well-documented issues with the Post’s DCPS education coverage and wished that this piece included acknowledgment of the paper’s role in promoting the roller-coaster ride of praise and scandal. But I take her point. The piece isn’t telling just one side of the story or over-simplifying the narrative.

Another example that comes to mind is Kyle Spencer’s New York Times piece, Some Parents Oppose Standardized Testing on Principle, but Not in Practice. It tells the stories of how some anti-testing advocates who are also parents have to make complicated decisions about whether to have their own children sit out the tests or take them.

For me, it’s always interesting and useful to read about people who have changed their minds about something, or changed the way they do things, or exhibited behavior that might appear inconsistent or even contradictory. That way I feel like I know I’m reading something that’s real.

“Complexity is contagious, it turns out, which is wonderful news for humanity,” writes Ripley.

 

If there’s one obvious criticism of Ripley’s piece, it’s that there may be little chance of persuading reporters to do things any differently, even if they wanted to.

Ripley makes the case that doing things differently in these ways will help restore trust in journalism and make journalists’ work more effective in the real world.

She makes the argument that counterintuitive coverage might turn out to be just as compelling for readers as indignation and over-simplification. “You might get more pageviews. Who knows?”

And there are some dynamics in journalism right now – towards longer pieces, and immersive narratives – that could conceivably help reporters tell more nuanced, narrative-breaking kinds of stories. As Ripley points out, media organizations are trying to move to longer relationships with readers rather than pumping stories for clicks.

But several powerful factors are working against these shifts:

Most national education reporters I know don’t talk much about feeling mistrusted by the public, though maybe they should. (Ripley says we’re naïve to think that education is exempt: “I don’t think people trust education coverage any more than they trust political coverage.”)

She is also asking reporters to trade immediate results – pageviews, newsroom prestige, and social shares – for long-term impact. That might not be realistic on a day-to-day basis. A clear and heated conflict has long been seen as the meat of the most exciting journalism.

The cultural and political polarization of recent years has created tremendous pressures on reporters to move away from nuance and complexity. The pressures to produce stories of clear and unequivocal wrongdoing are immense.

At least some journalists feel that certain topics and stories call for a strong, clear approach. Journalist Wendi C. Thomas expressed concern about the notion of adding complexity to coverage of issues affecting communities of color, where there’s a clear power imbalance. (Ripley agrees. “There are definitely times when complexity is not the right response,” she responded.) Ripley’s piece was also dinged by Debbie Chang for not quoting or referring to many people of color.

And the growth of ideological news outlets has contributed to the challenge of doing things differently. Where education reporters (and readers) used to have to argue over the same handful of stories published by the same handful of outlets, now they can write (or read) from outlets that feature coverage with a familiar, predictable bent, be it liberal or conservative.

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It’s scary, what Ripley is suggesting. And it might not work in any dramatic or linear way. But it’s also exciting – especially for education journalists who have been around the block once or twice. Exploring and unearthing new stories has got to be more satisfying and helpful than repeating the same familiar ones again and again.

And, as EWA public editor Emily Richmond noted in last week’s interview, there are some things that education reporters and editors can do in the current news environment.

These practices could include more reporting based on everyday stakeholders, including more experiences and views that don’t fit an established narrative, and including sources’ backstories and motivations along with their talking points.

We can all do better at watching out for stray bits of story that might otherwise get cut out, looping back with sources to make sure we’ve heard them correctly, and actively looking for surprises and anomalies. Everybody has time to try some of these suggestions at least occasionally.

Related columns:

The need for nuance & complexity in education writing (2015)

Make [Education] Reporting Great Again (2016)

A year full of terrible, horrible, no good, VERY bad media coverage of Betsy DeVos (2018)

ALEXANDER RUSSO (@alexanderrusso) is editor of The Grade.

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