Teacher strike coverage illustrates need to amplify parent, student voices

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A new think tank report on coverage of teacher strikes highlights the need to include more parent and student voices in 2018-2019 coverage.

On Monday, a DC-based think tank called the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) put out a report on how the mainstream media covered last school year’s teacher strikes, mixing a bit of praise along with a big dose of criticism.

“Newspapers deserve commendation for their impartial framing of the stories,” wrote report authors Frederick M. Hess and R.J. Martin, referring to how the stories were headlined and their opening sentences. However, they found that “the selection of quotes raised some grounds for concern, and a remarkable lack of detail about teacher compensation meant that stories lacked crucial context.” Overall, these flaws appear to have injected “a subtle but important pro-strike bias into the coverage.”

The AEI report does not attempt to present the national media as relentlessly pro-union. However, its findings – based on a small sample and a methodology that some find problematic – could be easily dismissed. The report is produced by a conservative-leaning organization.

And yet, as I wrote last spring, teacher strike coverage seemed to be “overenthusiastic, speculative, and short on the depth and nuance required of such a major story.” And, in particular, I find myself strongly agreeing with one of the major concerns outlined in the report: the lack of parent and student voices being quoted.

Teachers are essential parts of schools. Their concerns were at the heart of the recent strikes and walkouts. And they deserved the media attention they received. However, parents and students are also important stakeholders. They and their concerns warranted much more than the measly 5 percent of quotes that this report claims they received.

This lack of representation of parent and student voices is a major concern not only for those covering teacher strikes but also for education journalism in general. We keep trying to cover education, but we keep leaving out parents and students.

Teachers are essential parts of schools. However, parents and students are also important stakeholders. They and their concerns warranted much more than the measly 5 percent of quotes this report claims they received.

The new report claims to tell us “the good, bad, and ugly of how major newspapers covered the 2018 teacher strikes” in West Virginia, Kentucky, Oklahoma, Arizona, Colorado, and North Carolina. It spans a time period from Feb. 15 (just before the first West Virginia walkout) through June 1.

However, the study is quite limited in scope. It excludes local and regional news outlets and reporters who did so much to cover the events as they unfolded in these states. Ditto for trade press outlets, which means no attention for national nonprofits like Education Week, Chalkbeat, The 74, and the Hechinger Report.

In fact, the report focuses solely on five big daily newspapers: the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, and USA Today. That means no broadcast or cable news coverage is scrutinized, no web-first national publications like Politico, no national magazines like The Atlantic. National Public Radio is not included, either.

The exclusion of these outlets is not explained in the report, though it may have something to do with the reliance on LexisNexis as a single search engine/database and the desire to keep the sample size manageable. Associated Press articles picked up by the five outlets were included, however.

A total of 59 articles are included. You can read a short overview of the report in The Hill or a longer version in Education Next, which copublished the report.

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Some of the education reporters whose work is addressed in the report include (clockwise from top left) the Washington Post’s Moriah Balingit, the New York Times’ Dana Goldstein, and the Wall Street Journal’s Michelle Hackman and Tawnell Hobbs.

On the issue of including parents and students, the AEI critique seems particularly important for the education journalism community to consider.

Out of 254 quotes from 170 different individuals that were included in the 59 stories, the authors found fewer than 5 percent came from parents or students. According to the AEI report, parents and students were featured in just 12 of the 254 quotes. Just 14 percent of the stories featured even a single parent or student quote.

We would, of course, expect stories on teacher strikes to focus most heavily on the teachers, but that only 14 percent of stories bothered including any voices from any student or parent is pretty eye-opening.

“While families were a huge part of the story, one could read extensively about the strikes and never hear their perspective,” note Hess and Martin.

This lack of representation of parent and student voices is a major concern not only for those covering teacher strikes but also for education journalism in general. We keep trying to cover education, but we keep leaving out parents and students.

By comparison, 31 percent of the quotes were from public officials and another 24 percent from union officials. An additional 28 percent of quotes came from teachers not identified as union leaders.

There was some national coverage of the strikes that focused on parents from the five outlets being studied. Two of the 59 stories — the Washington Post’s story “WV teachers traded classrooms for picket lines, here’s how that impacted parents” and the WSJ’s “When teachers strike, parents face dilemma” — had multiple quotes from parents and students. And if NPR had been included, this Emily Wendler story from Oklahoma directly addresses parents’ concerns and experiences. There may be other examples that were not included.

Moreover, there’s some possibility that parents and students were undercounted in the AEI report. Teachers College professor Jeff Henig notes that the report codes individuals as parents only if that is their sole role.

Still, media coverage is shaped by the people quoted. Overall, the concerns of parent and student voices were not allowed to play a significant role in the shaping of the strike story.

Another important group left out of the coverage? School staff (sometimes also referred to as classified staff).  As noted in an April column here, the Oklahoma walkout coverage was criticized for its lack of diverse voices, among other things. “The national media has largely erased the role of communities of color… that drove these walk-outs,” according to The Guardian’s Mike Elk. Just two of the 254 quotes AEI coded came from staff, though one of my favorite strike coverage stories, Moriah Balingit’s Washington Post piece “School support staff scrape by on meager earnings,” is not included.

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Just five percent of the quotes coded in the AEI report came from parents and students. School staff (listed as “other”) got even less airtime.

The AEI report is on much weaker ground when it examines what sources were quoted as saying – and whether their comments are at least somewhat representative of public opinion on the topic.

They measure the sentiment of the quotes by “coding” them as pro- or anti-strike (or neutral). Green for pro-strike (“A teaching certification used to secure landing in the middle class… That’s not the case anymore in Arizona, and we need to do something about it now.”) Red for anti-strike (“A strike is hugely disruptive to families and kids…This is high stakes, and it’s of particular risk in low-wage states.”) You get the idea.

What the report finds is that the quotes overstated public support for the strikes. “Public opinion toward the walkouts likely was positive [in the strike states where folks were being interviewed] — but perhaps much less so than the coverage seemed to suggest. Few and far between were quotes like this one from a PE teacher named Jim Segar in the New York Times: “You can’t get everything at once after years of neglect. I think people would be crazy to walk out or strike now.”

But the report authors say that state-level polling about teachers is hard to come by. And the analysis of the quotes doesn’t match well with the national public opinion polling data cited. And the differences between the mix of quotes and what little we know about public opinion are not dramatic.

Still, the AEI report raises an important point: Journalists’ reliance on anecdotal quotes has long been a concern. Too often, reporters find and use interesting-seeming soundbites but don’t tell readers where the general public stands. Readers may assume that the opinions they are hearing are representative even if they are far from it.

That’s not to say that readers should expect anti-strike viewpoints from a news story about a pro-strike rally. But a national news story purporting to provide an overview of events – or sketching out what seems to be a trend – should provide available polling data when available and avoid overweighting the quotes and viewpoints it is providing to readers. It’s not clear that enough of this was done in the case of the teacher strikes.

A handful of reporters interviewed for this piece described struggling to find anti-strike voices. Some attributed it to the nature of the events being covered. Others attributed it to widespread public support for the strikes. Concerns about being attacked for expressing opposition may have been another factor, according to says Emily Wendler, the education reporter for StateImpact Oklahoma/KOSU Radio. “Pretty much anytime anyone spoke out against the strike, they got bashed pretty hard,” she said.

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good bad ugly teacher strike coverage hill

A summary version of the report was published in The Hill.

There are other aspects of the AEI report that I don’t find especially concerning. For example, the AEI report focuses a lot of attention on the limited coverage of non-salary compensation (health insurance, pensions) in national media coverage of the strikes.

I appreciate that benefits are important and represent a substantial burden for some districts and that there is a need for clear and accurate discussion of budget issues. (Earlier in the year, Hess and others pointed out that the New York Times and other news outlets were using a potentially misleading figure to describe education cuts in Oklahoma.)

But I think it might be too much to ask of national reporters to get that far into the weeds. Ditto for asking national reporters to cover work hours or vacation time.

In fact, some of the things that Hess and Martin want are more appropriate to ask from local and regional outlets rather than national ones that are, necessarily, often parachuting in from Washington or New York.

“No offense, but ‘so what?’ that national outlets didn’t do a great job covering the strikes,” says The Oklahoman’s Ben Felder. “I don’t know that I expected them to do any better than they did.” As for the compensation issues raised by AEI, he asks. “How wonky are you supposed to get? … I don’t know that the New York Times is going to talk about the 10 different ways to talk about a teacher’s salary.”

That being said, there was at least one standout national news story about the strikes that did address pension and health care costs in a more comprehensive way: “The new test for cash-strapped U.S.: Teacher protests,” in the Wall Street Journal. So it can be done.

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None of the key reporters whose work was examined here – including the New York Times’ Dana Goldstein, the Washington Post’s Moriah Balingit, and the Wall Street Journal’s Tawnell Hobbs and Michelle Hackman – was able to respond on the record to the report findings.

However, a few other journalists have commented.

Some have been critical of the AEI report. “I think the media actually for once did their job right,” says labor reporter Mike Elk, who reported from several strike states last spring. “After decades of demonizing teachers, the media finally let teachers and others speak in their own voice.” Elk also notes that the exclusion of local media coverage is a major flaw in the AEI report, given how much of the coverage was led by local outlets.

Others have been reflective: “I had a hard time finding parents who were annoyed about the strike,” said one national education reporter who did not want to be identified. “It was really hard to find someone.”

A few have been self-critical about the depth of the coverage they were able to produce. “My focus was on what do the teachers want to end it,” says KOSU’s Wendler. She describes nine whirlwind strike days with little time to understand and report out important underlying issues such as the conflicts between the state teachers union and teacher activists. “I think that it would have been worthwhile to step back and analyze instead of just doing this tick tock…. I think that there could have been a bigger story.”

This is not the first time that AEI has attempted this kind of analysis, and it probably won’t be the last. Education reporters would do well to try and understand better how their work is received and consider any improvements that might seem warranted.

This is especially true given the possibility of teacher strikes and walkouts during 2018-2019.

Teachers in a handful of states are considering striking this fall. A strike is looming in Los Angeles. Teachers in at least two Washington State school districts have already gone out on strike since school started.

Disclosure: I have written a handful of pieces for Education Next over the years, most recently about the XQ Prize Super School competition, and have published a handful of case studies for AEI, including ones about Teach For America and Democrats for Education Reform.

Previous coverage:

Oklahoma teacher walkout coverage was abundant, though marred by partisan politics

Worst education journalism of the 2017-2018 school year

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

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