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Off the Air

New report says education is being ignored by the mainstream media

by Tim Walker

National news coverage of education issues is virtually nonexistent – that’s the conclusion of a new study by the Washington D.C.-based Brookings Institution. The study, titled “Invisible: 1.4 percent Coverage for Education is Not Enough” surveyed the first 9 months of 2009 and found that network and cable television, newspapers, news Web sites and radio devoted only 1.4 percent of their national news coverage to education.

The report notes that the scarcity of education reporting is nothing new. Previous years were even worse, and, historically, substantive education news has always struggled for space on A1 of major newspapers or on top of the network evening news.

But the “perfect storm” of a deep recession, shrinking audiences, and vigorous competition, says Darrel West, director of governance studies at Brookings, has forced newspapers and networks to slash resources and further marginalize an issue most agree is a national priority.

“The lack of coverage in our national news media,” says West, “doesn’t match our rhetoric about how important education is to the nation.”

Moreover, that paltry 1.4 percent dwindles even more once you strip out the reporting and commentary over President Obama’s speech to students in September and schools' struggles with swine flu and violence.

Those weren’t really education stories, says Brookings senior fellow and report co-author E.J. Dionne.

“Their focus was politics and public health. What is needed is coverage of real education issues – reform, teacher quality, and funding, for example. They are shut out almost completely.”

Finding a place for education isuues onto the national media’s radar will be no easy task. The Brookings report urges news outlets to make greater use of education research, take a more proactive approach to reporting, and work more closely with schools to gain better access to the classroom. The key to any new efforts, however, is  a greater use of digital technology.

In fact, the Web provides the only traces of sliver lining in the report. Blogs are singled out for praise for their capacity for analysis and aggregating information. Even though many simply do not have the resources to do the necessary reporting, blogs and other forms of "citizen journalism" are filling gaps, especially at the local level.

The Brookings report cites bright spots in cities such as Providence, Des Moines, Minneapolis and Phoenix, where reporters are tapping tinto the unlimited space of the web, and the innate local interest in schools, to cultivate debate and discussion over education policy.

Still, a wall exists between local and national education coverage. And in the absence of an improving financial situation for the news industry, says Dionne, “nationalizing” local reporting is therefore critical.

“Some towns and cities are successful in leveraging digital media in improving their education coverage,” he explains, “so one of the key challenges moving forward is bubbling up this coverage to the national level.”


You can read “Invisible: 1.4 Percent Coverage for Education is Not Enough” here.