Is the Media Biased in Favor of Reform? It Depends on the Reform

Paul Farhi of the Washington Post created a stir this weekend with an American Journalism Review article ripping mainstream education reporting for being uncritical of school reform. His comments were particularly pointed when it came to television coverage of the subject, especially NBC’s.

NBC has concentrated on initiatives favored by self-styled education reformers. The network has been particularly generous to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which has poured hundreds of millions of dollars into promoting teacher merit pay proposals and privately run charter schools – an agenda strongly opposed by many public school teachers, labor unions and educators.

During its first “Education Nation” summit in 2010, for example, “NBC Nightly News” aired a profile of a Gates Foundation initiative, “Measures of Effective Teaching,” which seeks to create a database of effective teaching methods. The reporter was former NBC anchorman Tom Brokaw. During the second summit last fall, Brokaw showed up on “Today” with Melinda Gates to discuss the same Gates initiative. Turning from reporter to advocate, Brokaw told host Natalie Morales, “So what Bill and Melinda have done, and it’s a great credit to them, and it’s a great gift to this country, is that they have taken the kind of episodic values that we know about teaching and they’ve put them together in a way that everyone can learn from them. So that’s a big, big step.”

And Farhi’s not wrong; the media has indeed been obsessed with the teacher effectiveness agenda. That’s one finding of my own analysis of education reporting that I just published in Education Next. My team and I coded all of the national education stories published in 2011 in the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, USA Today, and Associated Press. And sure enough, teacher-related policies were covered more than any other topic.

But can you really blame the reporters? As former Secretary of Education Rod Paige once explained to me, journalists are in the “conflict business,” and there was a ton of conflict around teacher policies (LIFO, teacher evaluations, tenure, etc.) in 2011. (Remember Madison and Columbus?)

Farhi and I also agree about the downer tone of much reporting. Results from the various NAEP exams were big drivers of education coverage in 2011 too—and the presentation was overwhelmingly negative, even though many groups of students made historic gains. Cheating by teachers was another major story—and we all know how uplifting that one is.

Where I disagree with Farhi, however, is in lumping all reforms together. Consider school vouchers. The Wall Street Journal’s editorial page may have declared 2011 the “year of school choice,” but its news side dedicated exactly zero articles to the topic. And it wasn’t alone; only the A.P. published a story (just one) on the wave of voucher and tax credit bills enacted by Republican legislatures and governors last year. This wasn’t important enough a development to find space in the Times or Washington Post?

So Farhi could have been more precise: Journalists (especially broadcast journalists) are enamored with policies put forward by lefty reformers. And with the mainstream media’s liberal leanings, this makes sense. And goes to show, once again, that the most interesting fights in education reform today are intramural battles among the progressive elite.

See my full Education Next article here.

-Mike Petrilli

This blog entry also appears on the Fordham Institute’s Flypaper blog.

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