Invisible: 1.4 Percent Coverage for Education is Not Enough

E.J. Dionne, Jr.,
EJ Dionne
E.J. Dionne, Jr. W. Averell Harriman Chair and Senior Fellow - Governance Studies

Darrell M. West, and
Darrell West
Darrell M. West Senior Fellow - Center for Technology Innovation, Douglas Dillon Chair in Governmental Studies

Grover J. “Russ” Whitehurst
Whitehurst headshot
Grover J. “Russ” Whitehurst Former Brookings Expert

December 2, 2009

Executive Summary

News coverage is important to every policy area. While some people have personal knowledge of certain topics, many rely on mass media for direct, up-to-date, and in-depth reporting. This is especially the case with education because only a third of American adults currently have a child in elementary or secondary school. What most people know about schools comes from newspapers, radio, television, the Internet, or blogs – or from memories of their own experiences, often from long ago.

Yet despite the importance of media coverage for public understanding of education, news reporting on schools is scant. As we note in this report, there is virtually no national coverage of education. 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.1 This paucity of coverage is not unique to 2009. In 2008, only 0.7 percent of national news coverage involved education, while 1.0 percent did so in 2007. This makes it difficult for the public to follow the issues at stake in our education debates and to understand how to improve school performance.

Community colleges fare especially poorly in the constellation of news coverage. Of all the education reporting, only 2.9 percent is devoted to two-year institutions of higher learning, compared to 12.5 percent for colleges and 14.5 percent for universities (the rest goes to elementary and secondary schools). The lack of attention devoted to community colleges is noteworthy because even though they enroll 6.7 million students compared to 11.2 million for colleges and universities, two-year schools attract only one-tenth the news coverage of four-year institutions. From the standpoint of national media coverage, community colleges barely exist.

Of the education news that is reported across any education level, little relates to school policies and ways to improve the curriculum or learning processes. There was hardly any coverage of school reform, teacher quality, or other matters thought to be crucial for educational attainment. Instead, most stories this year dealt with budget problems, school crime, and the H1N1 flu outbreak. The emphasis on school budgets isn’t surprising given the country’s dismal economic news. Indeed, educational finance and the economic stimulus package together made up 17 percent of all national stories this year. However, the lack of coverage of the actual work of schools remains a significant problem.

It is hard for newspapers and television stations to assign reporters to cover the schools when circulation and advertising revenues have fallen. Double-digit unemployment shrinks the base of newspaper subscribers, and the market for the products and services that are advertised in newspapers. And newspapers are facing well-known challenges from other areas, leading to buy-outs and layoffs across the industry. The impact on newspapers and broadcast outlets has been dramatic and has led to expanding news holes, leaving less room for coverage not only of education but also of many other policy areas. Even if the economy recovers, long-term trends do not bode well for education coverage. Newspaper subscriptions peaked in the late 1980s. From 1990 to 2008, the number of subscribers declined steadily, for a total decline of 22 percent2, at the same time that the population of the U.S. increased by 22 percent. Beat reporters who cover education and other policy areas are being laid off and not replaced.

News aggregators focusing on education bring together reports and analyses from around the country. 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. In terms of print outlets, there are important differences in the way local and national media cover education. Local outlets are more likely to cover the substance of school policy than national media. Local journalists go to school board meetings, interview local education officials, and keep track of debates that unfold over curricula, teacher quality, and structural reforms. They are more closely tied to the actual content of education because people in the community worry about the education young people are receiving, especially parents who read their publications and watch their broadcasts. But it is difficult for local outlets to maintain the quality of their coverage in the face of financial cutbacks and staff layoffs.

In the conclusion of this report, we make a number of recommendations to improve the coverage of education. The disappearance of education news coverage is so pervasive and rooted in so many different causes that it will take a concerted effort on the part of all involved (news organizations, education administrators, government leaders, school boards, parents, students, and community leaders) to slow, much less reverse, this trend.

We believe there are a number of steps for improving the quantity and quality of education coverage that will make a positive difference:

  1. Schools need to understand that communications is important to their education mission. Time spent to inform reporters, parents, and the community about what is happening inside schools is a good investment in public understanding.
  2. Young people can be a valuable part of this communications effort through student newspapers, social media, citizen journalism, and other outreach activities. Budget cutbacks are reducing extracurricular activities of all kinds, including student newspapers. Some school officials discourage student reporters from asking difficult questions or raising controversial issues. In fact, student journalism of this kind should be encouraged. Student newspapers often lead the media to important education stories.
  3. Government officials and education administrators must draw attention to education policy through events, forums, and speeches that highlight noteworthy reforms and discuss ongoing problems and challenges. Public officials have an agenda-setting and problem-definition capacity that can drive news coverage. This is especially the case for community colleges in order to boost their local, regional, and national profile.
  4. 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.
  5. Reporters should draw on education research in the way that health care reporters use medical research. Journalists who follow medicine and health often highlight new studies, clinical trials, or other evaluative research that help consumers understand new treatments, new drugs, and new medical therapies. There should be better use of education research that evaluates school reforms, teacher quality, and classroom practices.
  6. 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.
  7. Media publishers and editors should find ways to integrate quality education blogs and forms of citizen journalism into press outlets. 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.
  8. Foundations and non-profit organizations should focus on developing alternative forms of education coverage both nationally and locally. At both levels, they should encourage more emphasis on reporting about teaching and teaching methods, curricula, course offerings, testing and other issues that directly affect learning and are receiving scant ongoing coverage. They can also encourage both investigative journalism and in-depth reporting of particularly successful (and troubled) schools and school systems.


[1] 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).