Make [Education] Reporting Great Again

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Four big lessons education journalists should consider, based on mainstream coverage of Campaign 2016 — and a few unsolicited (but great) story ideas from colleagues and observers.

By Alexander Russo

Much has been said and written over the past week and change about how poorly the mainstream media covering Campaign 2016 did at informing readers what voters really wanted and describing what was really going on in the race.

We geniuses in the news media spent only the last month telling you how Donald Trump was losing this election,” wrote the New York Times’ Frank Bruni in one of numerous self-reflections. “We spent the last year telling you how the Republican Party was unraveling.”

Not everyone is claiming that the media coverage changed the outcome of the race. And no one’s suggested that education reporters fell down on the job. Despite all efforts, education was pretty far from the center the action.

But the election results raised “wrenching questions for [education] leaders who have devoted their working lives to improving schools in poor communities,” noted Chalkbeat co-founder Elizabeth Green in a recent article. And it is raising questions for some education journalists, too.

“I wouldn’t call it a bubble,” said USA Today education reporter Greg Toppo about the current state of education coverage. “I would call it a set of issues that we seem to come back to again and again. They’re important issues, but they’re the same issues, and I hope maybe this election will get us to broaden our conception of what the important issues are.”

The unexpected outcome and widespread concerns about media coverage have been “causing us to think about what is our role in talking about the divides in this country, and reporting on them,” said the Hechinger Report’s Sarah Garland in an interview earlier this week.

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TEN DAYS OF MEDIA SELF-REFLECTION

A map showing areas of the USA won by Trump (left side), and areas won by Clinton (NYT)

Those in and outside of the mainstream media have spent much of the last 10 days criticizing and trying to understand the unorthodox campaign and unexpected results from the Presidential race.

Some critics have been saying the mainstream media “normalized” Trump as a candidate and were overly fair to his extreme views. Others believe he won despite mainstream journalists pouncing on every outlandish thing he said.

“In the end, a huge number of American voters wanted something different,” wrote the Washington Post’s Margaret Sullivan in a bracing postmortem. “And although these voters shouted and screamed it, most journalists just weren’t listening.”

Looking over these critiques, education journalists might well recognize some of the suggestions being put forth. The big four include:

  • Correcting false assertions and mis-statements of fact more explicitly
  • Covering polls and other forms of numerical information more carefully
  • Adjusting for ideological and class bias in liberal, college-education newsrooms
  • Diversifying coverage to include the interests and priorities of white working-class communities.

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LESSON 1: REPORTING WITH GREATER AUTHORITY

Boiled down, there are two main explanations for what went wrong with campaign coverage. One is that mainstream journalists weren’t tough enough on reporting Trump’s lies, racism, bigotry, and contradictions (and perhaps were too tough on Clinton).

“Thank you for preserving reportorial balance,” wrote a sarcastic Ethan Coen in the New York Times. “You balanced Donald Trump’s proposal that the military execute the innocent families of terrorists, against Hillary’s emails.”

In response, many journalists have pledged to stand up to powerful interests, call them out when necessary, and de-emphasize the fairness that led to false equivalency.

“Maybe one takeaway is that if you have expertise and see something that needs to be called out, maybe be a little more courageous,” said the Nieman Lab’s Joshua Benton (who used to write about education). After all, this was the election cycle in which the New York Times newsroom decided it needed to call a Presidential candidate a liar.

“I really think it’s important to report with authority,” agreed Education Writers Association executive director Caroline Hendrie. “We need to report when people are saying things that are wrong. We do not want to pass them along.”

The key will be for education reporters to apply the same skepticism and authority to all sides.

We need journalists and editors to take a breath, examine the real scope of the story, and give it to us in context. — NextDraft’s Dave Pell

The other dominant view is that mainstream journalists weren’t paying attention, or taking seriously enough, the economic and ideological priorities of white working-class communities and rural communities Trump recruited and won over, including many that had previously voted Democratic.

According to Hechinger’s Garland, there’s truth to both explanations.

“What [the election] means for us is both calling out racism when we see it, and also speaking to people who don’t necessarily see common ground with each other,” said Garland. “I don’t know that we weren’t doing that before, but going forward we are intending on making sure our language is as honest and accurate as possible, and holding people accountable.”

While based in New York City, the Hechinger Report has produced extensive coverage of education news in Kentucky, upstate New York, and Mississippi among other places.

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LESSON 2: RESISTING THE ILLUSION OF CERTAINTY IN NUMBERS

Journalists should give readers a “cone of uncertainty” like the ones used by weather forecasters, says ASU’s Dorn

Many have noted how poorly mainstream media interpreted and described the polling information that was available — in particular its limits and flaws. The prediction models — those skittish probability charts that started out on Election Day showing Clinton’s chances of victory being so high — were especially hard for journalists to resist using without appropriate cautions.

“Journalists have a very difficult time talking about uncertainty,” said ASU education professor Sherman Dorn in a recent phone call. Instead of giving ranges of uncertainty, or even including them, reporters tend to give point estimates — single numbers. “There’s no sense of the uncertainty” provided, according to Dorn, citing a 2012 NYT article about teacher effects on learning as a memorable example.

Sure, the polls were flawed and turned out to be inaccurate, but so were reporters’ uses and interpretations of them. And while it may be difficult and unwanted to convey complexity in news stories, journalists need to make sure they understand the numbers they’re passing on from researchers, pollsters, and (especially) advocates.

Dorn recommends reporters use a checklist to make sure they’re not passing along misinformation, and employ the kinds of explanations and visuals that weather forecasters use to depict research findings and possible outcomes.

Better — more careful — interpretation of research findings and poll results is probably the most specific and concrete imperative to come out of the campaign. But it’s not the only one.

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LESSON 3: GETTING OUT OF THE URBAN/CHARTER COVERAGE “BUBBLE”

 

Much of the critical attention and self-reflection has focused on how inadequately mainstream media understood the feelings and priorities of the millions of Americans who would end up voting for Donald Trump .

“We touched down in the big red states for a few days, or interviewed some coal miners or unemployed autoworkers in the Rust Belt,” wrote the Post’s Sullivan. But “we didn’t take them seriously. Or not seriously enough.”

The white working-class (non-college degree households sometimes referred to as WWC on Twitter) hasn’t received nearly enough attention and support, according to this view.

This also might be a particular point of focus for education reporters, given how much reporting been focused on the perceived needs of low-income families of color living in and around big cities — and college-educated gentrifiers — compared to white working-class communities.

“What’s happening to all the kids, including poor white kids, who are getting to college not ready?” asked Michael Petrilli, head of the conservative-leaning Fordham Institute. “Why are we OK with community colleges taking them in, taking their money, putting them in remedial education?”

I fully understand why transgender bathrooms are important, but I also understand why progressives’ obsession with prioritizing cultural issues infuriates many Americans whose chief concerns are economic. — Joan Williams in the Harvard Business Review

Longtime communications guru Patrick “Eduflack” Riccards advised education reporters to “get out of the bubble” and in particular get out of the narrative that most kids should be going to go on to pursue a four-year college degree. He praised the Hechinger Report and Chalkbeat’s state bureaus (Tennessee, Colorado, and Indiana) for breaking out of the big-city bubble and the dominant focus on four-year degree programs.

For reporters and editors who have become comfortable with charters-vs.-district storylines, or the recent attention on segregation and racial disparities, it may be difficult and uncomfortable branching out to other angles and topics. But the campaign results have reminded us all that our interests may have become narrowed and less representative of the communities we cover than we might have wanted to think.

And, even within confined urban coverage areas, there are more stories there than are getting covered. Working-class educators’ resentments against some of the poor families they serve, as described in a recent Mother Jones article, has been covered only rarely. White working-class resentment against public school teachers (“perceived as condescending and unhelpful,” according to research by Annette Lareau) is not something that’s gotten a lot of attention. Union households who voted for Trump — presumably including teachers — are another missing piece in much of what’s written about education.

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LESSON 4: ADDRESSING BIAS & OPENING UP TO DIFFERENT STORYLINES

Map showing hidden clusters of Trump voters in Staten Island, Southern Brooklyn, and parts of Queens, via Curbed

Last but not least, let’s talk about hidden bias, political and otherwise.

The vast majority of journalists are said to be Democrats. According to a recent CJR story, 96 percent of campaign donations from journalists went to Clinton. They’re also predominantly white and college-educated — a homogeneous group.

One of the most compelling observations about media coverage of Trump/Clinton is that college-educated, politically liberal journalists were simply unable to see how any but the most extreme voter would consider supporting Trump.

This election isn’t just Democrat vs. Republican It’s normal vs. abnormal. — Vox’s Ezra Klein

And yet, as we now know, millions of American voters decided to support the Republican candidate, forcing mainstream journalism to take a hard look at itself.

For some, the parallels to education coverage are obvious here. “There has been in the last couple of years this obsession with race among education journalists,” said Petrilli. “Explaining everything through the prism of race to the exclusion of other issues has been overdone… ‘White privilege’ not something those folks in rural America are experiencing.”

He cited the Washington Post as a national outlet that seemed most intent on producing stories through a racial lens. [He also chided me for doing much the same.] The Post did not respond to a request to comment on the charge.

Some journalists have already committed to addressing their own biases: “I plan to use greater care in how I talk to and about Americans more culturally conservative than I am,” wrote the Times’ Frank Bruni. “That’s not a surrender of principle or passion. It’s a grown-up acknowledgment that we’re a messy, imperfect species.”

Others are encouraging a more open-minded kind of journalism: “Don’t go into a community with the story three quarters written,” advised EWA’s Hendrie. “Expect to be surprised. Keep your eyes and mind open.”

However, not everyone agrees with this approach. “When folks write about understanding, and bridging gaps with, the ‘White working class,’ it ignores the fact that the prioritization of their interests is happening because a demagogue purposefully marginalized Americans of color throughout his campaign,” wrote Justin Cohen.

And to be sure, journalists should take care not to over-react to campaign coverage and its outcome. Nobody is suggesting that the education of the urban and suburban poor — who make up 36 million of the nation’s 43 million poor Americans — should be sidelined.

However, education reporters can do better at exploring the diverse views within their assigned areas. One way is to address their own implicit bias, checking assumptions, looking back at coverage to make sure there isn’t an obvious pattern of narrowing, and diversifying newsrooms along class lines as well as race and culture.

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MAKE EDUCATION JOURNALISM GREAT AGAIN

 

It will be difficult for some education reporters to find, interview, and write about people with whom they might disagree with personally or whose views and experiences they find unfamiliar or even objectionable.

But limiting education reporting to sympathetic characters, familiar settings, and predetermined narratives isn’t really journalism.

Education reporters need to get better at talking to all types — be it the bro-ish charter advocate, the crunchy social studies teacher, the super-strict immigrant parent, the principal setting up a program to help kids become HVAC technicians, the local pastor, the angry working-class teacher — whether or not they are familiar or comfortable to deal with.

The good news is that schools are schools. Whether it’s in rural Iowa or inner-city Philadelphia, they often play a similar role as a community center. And so education reporters who explore new places will likely find a familiar swirl of interests and dynamics among teachers, parents, community members, and political leaders — regardless of the geographic setting or the students’ backgrounds.

Reporters just have to be looking harder, and perhaps a bit differently, than they may have been in the past.

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

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