Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Education Coverage in the News... Grade: F

The Brookings Institution released its study December 2nd on news coverage of the education beat in national media. The overall finding: Only 1.4% of coverage is dedicated to education as a topic. Seems like a failing grade!

Based on the research, during the first nine months of 2009, "only 1.4 percent of national news coverage from television, newspapers, news Web sites, and radio dealt with education. Coverage is defined as the percent of space devoted to a topic as a percentage of the overall space available for content (number of words for print and online, amount of time for radio and television)."

Given that education is arguably one of the most critical ingredients to how a society functions (or doesn't function), it is concerning that this is the level of journalism dedicated to this important subject. The report states that over 50 million students are currently attending public pre-kindergarten, elementary, and secondary schools, another six million in non-public k-12 institutions, and 18 million in post secondary institution.

The report goes on to make the important point that, "Citizen-initiated journalism such as blogs, YouTube videos, Facebook postings, I-comments, and the like are helpful with breaking news and commentary on events ranging from shootings to flu outbreaks. Local blogs can encourage substantive debate on education issues, and school systems have used new technologies to keep parents in closer touch with their children’s schools and educational progress. But none of these can replace regular, systematic and ongoing coverage of education by news outlets."

I was curious about the data set used and methodology. Brookings commissioned the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism to see how the media covered education. Pew looked at reporting by television networks, cable TV, talk radio, leading web sites, and national newspapers. This translated to reviewing 551 education stories from January through September 2009 and also compared news coverage in 2007 and 2008. Also, Brookings also reviewed AP stories itself and also reviewed case studies of blogs devoted to local newspaper/education coverage, picking geographic diversity, in four communities: Phoenix, Arizona; Providence, Rhode Island; Des Moines, Iowa; and Minneapolis, Minnesota.

MORE ON THE FINDINGS ON COVERAGE: The 1.4 percent of coverage in 2009 means that this small percentage had to encompass all coverage about preschools, elementary, middle, secondary, schools and higher education. This was only marginally higher than in 2008, when only 0.7 percent of the newshole dealt with education, and 2007, where the figure was 1.0 percent.

A fringe benefit of this research: In the course of tracking education beat coverage, Pew and Brookings also compiled data on the amount of coverage dedicated to other beats.

HOW THIS RELATES TO OTHER RESEARCH I AM FOLLOWING: Similar to what we find with global news coverage research that I have reviewed, the issue with education coverage is that it is episodic, reactive, and focused on major events. This is likely due to the fact that less and less professional journalists that are able to give this topic sustained coverage and effort actually exist anymore.

RUNDOWN: Here is the rundown of coverage overall, with Education framed in context. Note the other important subject areas that also received, little to no coverage...



SOLUTIONS: The report outlines a number of potential solutions. Based on my understanding of the journalism field, the following seem the strongest:

#1 Having the education sector better understand how media impacts their work (Therefore, put out information in a digestable way, etc.)

#2 Encouraging youth journalism and not relegating student to cover non controversial topics,"In fact, student journalism of this kind should be encouraged. Student newspapers often lead the media to important education stories."

#3 Integrating "quality education blogs and forms of citizen journalism..." into traditional media. "Newspapers could develop their own blogs and community talkbacks, and also provide links to education blogs that already exist in the community. This could help fill the policy void left by staff cutbacks on education beats."

#4 Not for profit media and their funders should move to fill this unmet content need void on a national and local level.

Other suggestions, although well-meaning, may not address the underlying economic disincentive to cover education (not something that, given costs and dedicated resources, it will not likely be a priority for some time to come for commercial media)

For example:

#1 "Reporting should become more proactive and less reactive. Much of coverage today is episodic and driven by events. Focusing on long-term trends would help to inform communities about the content of education and ways schools are seeking to move forward." (Perhaps not for profit media will tackle this, but not sure for profits will).

Or

#2 "Newspapers and other media outlets that have cut back on education reporting should reconsider these decisions both on public interest grounds, and also because there is widespread interest in the issues surrounding education – on the part of parents especially, but also among employers and other community leaders. It is only through on-going, day-to-day beat reporting that journalists develop an understanding of the subject, gain a sure feel for the issues at stake, and develop sources who keep them informed."

This last point is also SO true, that sustained coverage is the only way to lead to understanding of a topic, but again, I am not sure what the incentive of commercial news media will be to cover....

With that said, this report appears to be a strong piece of research that not only puts the education beat in context but also provides more data on numerous other beats.

To watch the webcast regarding the report, go to:

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