Education news coverage – a weak and diminishing presence, or better than ever?

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Criticism and commentary about education journalism are constant lately.  Some good points are being made. But the conversation needs to be deeper (and broader) than it has been so far.

By Alexander Russo

Two longtime observers recently took sharply opposing viewpoints on the state of education journalism. Both have points. Neither got it right.

Representing one end of the debate is former journalist named Joe Follick, the state-level communications head for the Jeb Bush-founded think tank Foundation for Excellence in Education, who penned a glowing testament titled Reporting on Education Has Never Been Better earlier this month.

“No other topic is covered with the depth and zest of education – from sweeping stories about national trends to the tragedies of school violence to thoughtful analysis of the new world of educational reform,” wrote Follick.

At the other end of the debate is Columbia Journalism School professor Nick Lemann, who presented a paper that’s very critical of education journalism at an event in Washington, DC earlier this year; his talk was picked up in an early-June Washington Post column by Jay Mathews.

In his piece, Lemann decried “the deprofessionalization of journalism, especially outside of Washington and New York.” Lemann also took fault with what he sees as a standard set of problems with education coverage, including journalists’ misunderstanding of research and tendency to go for the emotional and dramatic rather than the data.

It’s a familiar critique, notes Mathews in his column. “Our headlines are slanted. Our stories omit important facts. Context is sacrificed in favor of some alleged disaster that will capture online attention.”

But from where I sit, Follick’s and Lemann’s views both seem extreme.

Despite substantial improvements and obvious examples of excellence, education journalism isn’t experiencing anything like the “golden age” Follick claims. Nor does education journalism seem anywhere near as corroded and in crisis as Lemann suggests.

We need a better conversation about education journalism.

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follick lemann

Follick (left), and Lemann. 

Much as I would like to – who doesn’t like to hear nice things said about themselves? – it’s hard to take Follick’s praise entirely seriously.

A newspaper reporter for 17 years, Follick bases his conclusions largely on having attended the recent Education Writers Association conference (EWA) in Los Angeles, where he found 350 “young,” “whip-smart” reporters. They weren’t complaining about the good old days. (Most of the folks who could do that are long gone.) They were packing conference panels on ESSA data, charter schools, and personalized learning.

To be sure, EWA puts on a strong event. And it’s encouraging that education is increasingly a chosen beat where reporters and editors stay put. (The 2016 EWA survey of education journalists found that most education reporters were in their mid-30s and had 11 years of experience.)

The ecosystem has also been helped by the arrival of POLITICO’s education coverage and the greatly-expanded NPR education team of the last few years.

In particular, Follick credits the rise of a handful of specialized outlets like Chalkbeat, the Hechinger Report, and The 74 for having renewed his confidence in education journalism.

“Freed from the constraints of one-upping everyone in competition for a click, the edu-world reporters spend most of their time actually researching and writing.” By contrast, mainstream reporters “think the job is only done properly when it is fueled with conflict and outrage.”

These new and expanding nonprofit outlets are welcome additions. But their arrival – 10 years ago now for the network now called Chalkbeat – can’t be described as transformative. They haven’t nearly replaced the jobs and outlets that have been lost. They remain relatively small in terms of newsroom size, and their readership is limited.

With the overall decline in the number of education journalists – all journalists for that matter – education reporters have less time to report their stories.

Education journalism is in something of a golden age, according to Follick. Not so much at all, according to Lemann.

In his much harsher assessment, Lemann, too, overstates the case.

Hosted by the National Academy of Education (NAEd), the event at which the former dean (and force behind the Spencer Education Journalism Fellowship) delivered his paper focused largely on international large-scale international assessments that compare education among different countries, not education journalism.

However, a portion of the day was spent discussing news coverage, which the NAEd report claims “tends to be superficial and, in many cases, misleading.” Those in attendance hoped to discover ways to produce “more sound interpretations” than have been generated in the past.

In his paper, Lemann critiques education reporters as unfamiliar with and unable to work with education research.

Education reporters are not generally able to “use both research and the kind of ethnographic work that journalists are trained to do to make sense of the widespread assertions of inferiority or even failure in the American public school system,” writes Lemann.

“Most reporters do not seem to be familiar with the large quantity of first-rate education research that is readily available to them, and many reporters are unable to engage with anything that uses, let’s say, correlation coefficients,” he adds.

This creates space for “self-appointed experts and misleading numbers.” The journalistic tendency to overemphasize “personalities, anecdotes, and narratives” also distracts reporters and readers, he writes.

“Most reporters do not seem to be familiar with the large quantity of first-rate education research that is readily available to them, and many reporters are unable to engage with anything that uses, let’s say, correlation coefficients.”

By this description, we’re a pretty sad bunch. But it’s worse than that, according to Lemann.

The more immediate problem, he says, is that traditional professional journalism is fast disappearing. He cites major declines in newsroom employment over the past decade and a half.

According to Lemann, “It is essential to understand how quickly and how much the environment has changed.”

Readers of the New York Times, Washington Post, and Wall Street Journal might not realize it from what they’re reading in those publications, he says, but they’re getting a misleadingly positive impression of the quantity and quality of education coverage that’s generally available.

Nobody is immune to these changes. As Lemann notes in his piece, the New York Times doesn’t even have an education desk anymore. (It’s true – I checked.)

Lemann’s critique of the coverage of large-scale test results and education research results is a familiar one, and it remains worrisome. Every week this spring, it seemed, there was news of another bit of famous research – the “marshmallow” test, for example – that had been passed along as true by the media when it warranted caution and nuance. But this concern isn’t new. And, when it comes to data in general, education outlets and journalists are smarter now than ever.

Lemann sees some reason to praise the rise of the non-profit education news outlets, but he raises concerns about funding sources and editorial independence, calling on nonprofit outlets and journalism funders to adopt the American Press Institute code of ethics for nonprofit journalism.

“Fake news is not the big problem in education journalism. Ideological news organizations are not the big problem. The Trump administration is not the big problem. The big problem is the de-professionalization of journalism…”

Those in the education journalism community who reacted to Follick’s upbeat piece generally liked it. “Want to feel a little hope about the future?” tweeted EWA’s Kim Clark.

Few education journalists seem to have heard about or reacted to Lemann’s critical remarks, which is unfortunate.

But what’s really going on in education journalism?

Opinions may vary. Each of us expects something different out of education journalism. And the conversation needs to be much broader and more inclusive than just a bunch of white guys arguing among themselves, which is too often the case (including this column, which is sorely missing the voices of journalists of color or women).

But from my perspective education journalism is clearly better than when I entered the profession nearly 20 years ago – much stronger in some ways. It’s different now than it was then, in terms of the mix of strengths and weaknesses. But back 20 years ago, there also seemed to be relatively little of the kinds of sophisticated, in-depth education coverage that we see fairly often now.

The most significant education coverage these days deserves and receives recognition outside the education world. It delves into significant policy and social issues. The Tampa Bay Times piece on the resegregation of a handful of racially isolated schools in Florida is one obvious example. At its best, education reporting these days isn’t just for parents and education wonks.

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Then again, there are many challenges, obvious and subtle.

The quantity of every-day local journalism seems to have declined – due in large part, I’m sure, to the massive downsizing that’s going on in all but a few places. I don’t feel nearly as confident as I used to that I can find out what’s going on in schools around the country.

A growing amount of education coverage is coming from nonprofit outlets like EdWeek and Chalkbeat that are generally reaching insiders more than the general public – and may blind us to the broader staff reductions that are going on in mainstream commercial newsrooms.

There is an enormous amount of polarization in education journalism. Some of it may even be fueled by the rise of nonprofit news outlets. A new report this week found that 14 of the top 25 foundation-funded nonprofit magazines has an ideological bent.

Too much of the best education journalism being produced isn’t coming from education beat reporters. We celebrate it as our own, but often those we celebrate – think the Washington Post’s John Woodrow Cox or The Atlantic contributor Amanda Ripley – don’t consider themselves education reporters and won’t necessarily return to the topic with any regularity.

And – others may vehemently disagree – the overall quality of education journalism is not yet as consistently good as it should be. Not yet as overwhelmingly smart and compelling as I desperately want it to be.

There is the occasional influx of proven, high-power talent – the Washington Post’s surprise decision to hire Wall Street Journal veteran Laura Meckler to be national education reporter, or Chalkbeat’s recent hires of veterans like Sharon Noguchi from the San Jose Mercury News or Sara Mosle from the New York Times and other places.

But the general trend is going the other way. The Washington Post has made coverage of the DC public schools a revolving door beat where few reporters stayed long enough to watchdog the district effectively. The Seattle Times picked Joy Resmovits, a talented reporter but unproven as an editor, to replace veteran education editor Linda Shaw.

Follick raised some good points, but did he look at the actual state of the journalism? Lemann similarly looked at some pretty narrow aspects. In fact, neither one of these commentaries on education journalism is as strong as education journalism itself.

You can listen to Lemann and others (New America’s Kevin Carey, Science Magazine’s Brad Wible) share their thoughts here. Lemann’s slides are here.

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

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