Back to school means education news stories …for a while

It’s that time of year again. As millions of youngsters return to school, thousands of journalists cast about for a once-a-year education-themed story. As one might expect with such sporadic attention, many of the August/September stories will be light and superficial.

Come October, though, education news reverts to its sparse normality. Those local and state news outlets willing to employ fulltime education beat reporters may enjoy thorough topical coverage in their region.

At the national level, however, two-party myopia obscures most reportage. The nearsightedness is most extreme in the sourcing of expertise—those whom reporters choose to call for authoritative quotes on education facts and research. Over and over again, national education reporters consult the small groups of policy analysts closest to the Democratic and Republican leaderships.

Certainly it makes sense for a reporter to talk to them, sometimes. They advise party leaders and it is important to know what party leaders are hearing. But, they are not the font of all knowledge and wisdom. Moreover, because national education reporters so rarely talk to anyone else, the policy insiders can take advantage.

Selective referencing—limiting one’s sources of information to one’s colleagues within the group—is the norm. Dismissive reviews—open declarations that no information or research exists outside the bounds of the group—are common, too. Indeed, national education reporters frequently pass along both unquestioned and intact, essentially helping policy analysts with their own agendas to suppress competing ideas and the careers of rival analysts.

Many education reporters don’t see a problem, though. After surveying their members nationwide, the Education Writers Association (EWA) declared this a “golden age for education reporting.” EWA revealed that 95 percent of its member-respondents think “My journalism makes a positive impact on education.”

The EWA also asked its members for their “most frequently cited sources of story ideas.” Sources #1 and #2 were, respectively, “news release, news conference, or public relations professional” and “news coverage.” The first source type requires money and organization, something far more common to establishment insiders than independent outsiders. The second source type—also known as pack journalism—simply multiplies the effect of the first.

The late professor and congressman Daniel Patrick Moynihan famously asserted, “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts.” Within the flatland of US education journalism, the assertion may not hold. The more narrowly journalists source factual information, the more opportunity they grant those sources to customize facts to benefit themselves and the two parties’ leadership.

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