The Sad State of Education Coverage

A superintendent finds reporting ranges between bizarre and sensational, but sees an opening for better media relationships by JOSEPH P. BATORY

In a striking op-ed piece, respected Philadelphia Inquirer columnist Claude Lewis lamented the fact that "journalism–once a somewhat noble profession–is sliding swiftly into slime."

Lewis summarized this sad state of affairs among news organizations this way: "To catch the public's interest, they are banking on their insatiable appetite for titillating, tattletale news. For years, TV fed the public hunger for violence and sensation with nightly reports of bloody shootings and burning buildings. But now this no longer has the same shock effect, and newscasts increasingly traffic in the salacious and even the bizarre. … Being first with the most sensational stories is often more valued than being the most accurate or the most informative.

"Television news and gossip magazines are altering the character of everybody's news--and tastes," he wrote.

Sensational Footage
Indeed, the journalistic quality of electronic media covering my school district has been especially strange. Take, for example, what happened when a high school student was suspended for making an inappropriate remark (parroting national radio show host Howard Stern) in a classroom.

Objecting to the discipline, the boy and his mother called in live on the air to Stern, who seized this opportunity for his own publicity to become a "champion of the oppressed." This led to a news media feeding frenzy. Cameras and television crews surrounded our high school for days, harassing students, teachers and administrators and disrupting education.

Then, in a most bizarre occurrence, a camera crew from the local NBC affiliate attempted to film the high school's empty hallways one night when school was closed. When evicted by the custodial crew, they sped around and around the building, filming the high school's exterior. Later, the TV truck parked across the street, keeping the high school under surveillance through the end of the 11 p.m. newscast.

Meanwhile, the suspended student and his mother became media celebrities, appearing on Montel Williams' syndicated television program and several Philadelphia radio talk shows and on page one of a daily newspaper.

This reaction of the press to a relatively minor disciplinary matter, at the very least, was excessive and lacking in perspective. Heaven forbid that an educational issue should receive this kind of in-depth treatment. And why, when there are literally hundreds of unusual, unique and positive student stories in the school system, does the behavior of one aberrant high school student and his obsessive mother deserve such fame and publicity?

Ironically, an in-depth analysis by The Philadelphia Inquirer of local television coverage pointed to this "accent on the sensational." In this study, the newspaper noted that each area television station devoted more than half of its nightly prime time news to crime and peril, to "blood and gore" footage and body bags, to morbid accounts from police and eyewitnesses and tearful scenes with loved ones.

Consider, too, the results of a 50-day study of several metropolitan TV newsrooms by researchers at Santa Clara University several years ago. Their findings, reported in the Columbia Journalism Review, indicated 56 percent of the TV news stories were either inaccurate or misleading in the view of two media watchdogs.

Untrue and Unchecked
The print media are not exempt from this criticism. Al Neuharth, the founder of USA Today, questioned the state of national newspaper journalism in his column, citing three problems:
  • Fiction printed as fact;
  • A "gotcha mentality" in newsrooms that obsessively focuses on trying to get the goods and ruin somebody or something; and
  • "Gutter journalism," which in simplest terms is an editorial attitude to "get your enemies" and "help your friends," rather than just report it like it is.

A couple of years ago, The Philadelphia Inquirer ran a sizzling negative editorial about the Upper Darby School District's decision to ban Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. The headline asked: "Huck Finn is tossed out of Upper Darby schools, but what kind of educational standard is this?"

There was just one small problem with this editorial of more than 400 words: None of it was true! Thus, my school district was savaged in one of the nation's largest and most respected daily newspapers about a book banning that never occurred. Oh, there was such a controversy in the Upper Dublin School District, located elsewhere in Pennsylvania. How is it possible that with an issue so serious, some editor couldn't verify what was about to be published? With a modicum of effort, this unfortunate episode could have been avoided.

A few summers back, an op-ed writer at the Philadelphia Inquirer authored a strange column questioning the value of block scheduling at Upper Darby High School. In the current mold of what passes today as responsible journalism, the writer never picked up the phone to ask anyone in our school system for our views. Instead, he based his report on the ventings of a handful of disgruntled citizens from several area school districts and dutifully aired their off-base comments, resulting in a one-sided analysis of the issue. The column lacked any journalistic balance.

Who's Accountable?
With regard to what attracts news coverage these days, Ben Wattenberg, an award-winning syndicated newspaper columnist, wrote the following in his book, The First Universal Nation, about journalists' propensity for scandal: "Journalists say: 'Don't blame us for the negative (scandal mongering). We're only the messengers who bring the bad news.' That is mostly bunk. How many messengers do you know who sort through a hundred potential messages and decide which three to deliver?"

Mona Charen, another nationally syndicated columnist, suggests that the American public considers the press the most arrogant group in society, owing to its lack of accountability.

"But who does the press answer to?" she asks. "As the moderators of public discourse, we decide what will and won't be discussed. And alas, what the press almost never wants to discuss are the errors of the press. That's the most under-reported story in the world."

Negative Perceptions
So what does all of this have to do with public education? Public Agenda, a nonpartisan public opinion research firm, reported in 1997 on perceptions of the news media in which the research firm documented what all of us already know. Educators are extremely negative about the quality of press coverage of public education.

News stories provide insufficient information, unsubstantiated allegations, absurd analogies, biased perspectives, secondary rather than primary sources, hyperbole and selectivity rather than objectivity. These are all too commonplace.

Tragically, no matter how unprecedented or unique, positive stories are too often squeezed out by editors and news directors. Meanwhile abhorrent behavior yields celebrity status to individuals. The negative story then gets beaten to death in recurrent news coverage ad nauseum.

The performance of the news media today is seriously on trial and not just by educators. Public Agenda's analysis cites these concerns:

  • Sixty-nine percent of the general public thinks the media cover news according to what sells.
  • Seventy-seven percent are very interested in seeing/reading more stories about raising academic standards, but only 26 percent want to see/read more about school board, superintendent and union disputes.
  • Fifty-two percent give only fair or poor ratings to the quality of local broadcast media's coverage of public education; 42 percent give fair or poor ratings to local print media.
  • Only 22 percent of parents get the most useful information about what's happening in local schools from TV, radio or newspapers. Sixty-four percent of parents say they would rely on the local media little or not at all if they wanted to send their child to a different school.
Meaningful Dialogue
These may be the worst of times for school officials when dealing with the news media, but these also may lead to better times.

The Public Agenda study, while questioning journalistic effectiveness and credibility, offers objective insights to the news media about what the public really wants in its education news coverage. This study can serve as a basis for meaningful dialogue between educational leaders and news media representatives about what each is doing now and might do better in the future.

The fact that some of the most stinging criticism of journalistic performance is originating from prominent journalists is cause for introspection among many editors and news directors. Most of the reporters and editors that I have met over the years have not been inclined to sensationalize their reports. And most are trying to do their jobs with some degree of balance and fairness.

If ever there was a time for school superintendents to be more assertive in communicating concerns to editors and station managers, it is now. Unfortunately, too many of us have made an art form out of circling the wagons and attempting to fade into the woodwork on occasions that require dialogue.

In each of the Upper Darby case studies of news coverage cited earlier, my staff and I communicated our concerns to either the reporters involved or their editors or news directors. Those news people certainly didn't like hearing our objections, but I also clearly got the sense that many in the news business like shoddy journalism or errors even less than I do.

Superintendents and other school administrators need to take a look at what their institutions are communicating. Significant, non-frivolous information about initiatives and trends in education will produce improved understanding and support for what we do among the general public, as well as for journalists. A good rule is to try to get out front on an issue before you have to react to it. Here again, the recent Public Agenda study can be a helpful resource for teachers and administrators in communicating significant educational matters through the news media.

Finally, resiliency for school administrators in dealing with the news media is an essential leadership trait. In a competitive news market, press coverage of any open and democratic institution is bound to yield ups and downs for that institution. The adverse attention cannot always be controlled. School leaders need to understand this and not retreat from reality.

Joseph Batory retired this summer after 13 years as superintendent of the Upper Darby School District. He can reached at 525 Irvington Road, Drexel Hill, PA 19026. E-mail: Batory@dvol.com