Leave No Reader Behind

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

President Obama’s back-to-school speech received attention. National media also reported how schools were responding to flu epidemics. But, despite its importance to our national interest, education simply does not generate the coverage given to other major issues.

We conclude in a new Brookings report that there is virtually no national coverage of education. And of the education news that is reported, little relates to education policy or practice. There was hardly any coverage of school reform, teacher quality, or other matters thought to be crucial for education progress. Instead, most stories this year dealt with school finances, budget problems, crime, scandals, the H1N1 flu, and other episodic topics.

During the first nine months of 2009, only 1.4 percent of national news coverage focused on education issues. This paucity of coverage is not new: Last year, only 0.7 percent of national news coverage was about education; in 2007 that figure hovered around 1 percent.

Community colleges fare especially poorly. Even though two-year colleges are major avenues of opportunity for many students and enroll 6.5 million students—compared to 10.8 million for four-year colleges and universities—they barely exist in today’s media landscape.

Unfortunately, the quality and quantity of education news is not likely to improve. The number of subscribers to print media is in steady decline. Education beat reporters are being laid off and not replaced. The financial impact on newsrooms is dire and has led to shrinking news coverage beyond just education.

These realities make it difficult for the public to be informed about the issues at stake in our education debates and to fully understand proposed polices designed to improve school performance. During a time when the “No Child Left Behind” law is up for reauthorization and “Race to the Top” grant applications are due, the American public needs accurate, unbiased reporting on policies and reforms that will shape the education landscape and the future of a generation of students.

We conclude that it will take a concerted effort on the part of news organizations, education administrators, government leaders, school boards, parents, students and community leaders to provide requisite levels of information about education to the public.

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 promoting public understanding.

Students themselves can be part of the solution through student newspapers, social media, and other outreach activities. Students have an understanding of new technologies that often exceeds that of school administrators or parents. In an era of citizen journalism and grass-roots communications, they can be powerful agents of public information and reform.

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. Such efforts could prove especially beneficial to community colleges to boost their local, regional and national profile.

The media needs to change its approach to education news. More reporting should be proactive and driven by substance to balance reactive episodic coverage. Reporters could draw on education research, for instance, in the way that health care reporters use medical research.

We believe that national media outlets have a great deal to learn from how local reporters cover education. Local papers appear to be more substantive and to devote greater attention to education policy and school reform than national news organizations.

Publishers and editors should find ways to integrate quality education blogs and other forms of new media journalism into press coverage. This could take the form of newspapers developing their own blogs and community talkbacks or providing links to education policy blogs that already exist, or encouraging readers and viewers to turn to their more extensive web coverage of education. This could help fill the policy void left by staff cutbacks on education beats.

Finally, foundations and non-profit organizations should focus on finding way to encourage not only investigative journalism centered on educational institutions but also more, continuing beat coverage.

America’s future and its success in educating its citizens are inextricably intertwined. Whether at the local, state, or federal level decisions about education are inherently political as elected school boards, legislative bodies, and executive branch officials carry out their responsibilities as representatives of the public that put them in office. An engaged, informed public is a necessary component of progress. We can no longer afford to leave readers behind.