The Incredible Shrinking Education Beat

by Robert Pondiscio
December 3rd, 2009

A new Brookings report bemoans a lack of education reporting noting that “only 1.4 percent of national news coverage from television, newspapers, news Web sites, and radio dealt with education.”  Some are taking issue with the study’s methodology, noting it only counts page A1 stories in the newspaper.  Still nobody seems to be arguing that we are well-served by the amount and quality of ed news in our major media. 

A call for more coverage, however, is a bit like King Canute calling for the tide to recede.  It’s not going to happen,  The forces that conspire to limit ed coverage — dwindling advertising, staff cutbacks, greater competition for fewer readers– are nothing new.  Time Magazine, where I used to work, hasn’t had a reporter solely dedicated to education for nearly 20 years.  Today, they barely have reporters at all.  There is no reason to expect these trends to do anything other than accelerate.   

I don’t wish to paint a picture of the Brookings report as naive, but newspapers and other media are simply not public interest vehicles.  They are businesses that profit from what the public is interested in.  That’s not nearly the same thing.  The call for more, better and nuanced education news is fine, but the idea that our oxygen-starved major media ought to be the standard-bearer is a bit of wishful thinking.   It ignores too many irreversible trends in the way news is produced and consumed.

Also, I’m not sure the paucity of education coverage is always a bad thing.  Even when our elite media focus on education, they tend to oversimplify or focus on conflict or human interest.  More of that we can surely live without.  The Brookings report also argues ”there should be better use of education research that evaluates school reforms, teacher quality, and classroom practices.”  You might just as easily say “there should be better research.”   Media coverage that looks at schools through the lens of test scores has value, but it’s not the only lens.  If research-based reporting means more media coverage that further enshrines the test scores uber alles mindset, well, thanks but no thanks. 

The Brookings report calls for foundations and non-profit organizations to “focus on developing alternative forms of education coverage both nationally and locally.”  On this point I agree completely.  The opportunity would be for a major foundation to bankroll an education news site that attempt to do on a national scale what Gotham Schools, for example, does for New York City.  Perhaps an ed version of ProPublica, the independent, nonprofit investigative journalism outfit let by Paul Steiger, the former managing editor of the Wall Street Journal.  Indeed, the most efficacious move might be for Gates, Wallace or some other ed-minded foundation to write a check to ProPublica to staff up an education beat. 

The world has largely moved on from the day when national media — even strong local media — drove and dominated the conversation on education.  The education beat, never a national media strong suit, is largely viewed as expendable.  People want information about education when they want it, not when an editor in New York or Washington decides to give it to them.  And most of us outside the education and policy bubble are not interested in education; we’re interested in our kid’s school.  These are not necessarily bad trends.  And whether they are or not, they can’t be stopped.