Education and Media at a Crossroads: Do We Really Want the Truth?
A book review published in the August 1999 issue of The College Board Review speaks to our current media moment
Our algorithm-driven media can often make the world feel like a biodome of endless existential battlegrounds, from funding the federal government to celebrity beefs to whether a giant tuber is a potato or not. Debate is a fundamental, necessary aspect of a healthy democracy, but does everything need to be a death match? Of course not. We can point to so many places where a cool-down is needed, but one of the most urgent is education.
Conflict-driven coverage extrapolates a few contentious school board meetings into a new national front in the culture wars, while reactive reporting muddles already muddied information about mask policies and in-person-versus-remote learning. There are education-focused outlets doing exceptional work—like Chalkbeat, The Hechinger Report, and The 74—but legacy media, be it in print, online, or on TV, has struggled mightily. And the result is families—especially in Black and Hispanic communities—aren't getting the information they need to make informed decisions about their children's education. As a Nieman Lab story from February digging into a report published by Calvin University’s Center for Social Research put it, "Parents really want useful education news. They aren’t all getting it."
"There certainly were parents who were expressing essentially politicized opinions about what they were reading, hearing, and watching in the news about schools," said Jesse Holcomb, the report's lead author. "[But] they’re more interested in things like their child’s well-being and how to keep them learning than they’re interested in policy and curriculum."
Turns out this gap between media and audience—and, indeed, media and subject—isn't new. In the August 1999 issue of The College Board Review, Robert J. Monson, then a superintendent in Minnesota, reviewed Imaging Education: The Media and Schools in America. Edited by Gene I. Maeroff, the book is a collection of analytical essays exploring the challenges faced by journalists and educators, where they intersect, and how they exacerbate each other's issues. "Educators need journalists to carry the questions of purpose to the public in a fair way so that civil discourse may occur," Monson writes. "Journalists need educators because the role of education in our country goes to the heart of Americans' interests and priorities." But, he adds, "Journalists and educators serve the same public, one that sends conflicting messages about what it really wants for its schools and how the news media should report the condition of education."
You don't have to be a media obsessive or higher ed professional to find this now-23-year-old analysis fascinating. Education news impacts nearly everyone because nearly everyone is involved in America's education system, be it as a student, the parent or guardian of a student, or someone who works in an education or ed-adjacent field. And that says nothing of the importance of a functioning educational system for the health of our civic and economic institutions. It's a reality Monson is acutely aware of in his review.
"The issues raised in this volume suggest to me that public K–12 education, higher education, and journalism are all facing crossroads regarding their purposes," he writes. "As the millennium approaches, more and more of our institutions are facing the same dilemma—do we stay the same course that got us to where we are or do we change course?"
That dilemma is even more acute today, more than 20 years later and two years into a global pandemic that tore open fissures in America's schools and fundamentally disrupted how students learn. Reports like the one from Calvin University and education media critics like Alexander Russo at The Grade and the "educator in NYC" who runs the Cafeteria Duty newsletter have shined lights on where journalists have succeeded as well as where they have fallen short. But it's clear we need an updated edition of Imaging Education.
Until then, we have Monson's review to remind us that journalism's inability to rise to the occasion when it comes to education is nothing new—and neither is the push to improve the education beat by making it more responsive to who matters: readers, not ratings (or algorithms).
What the public wants is the image of passion, not the passion itself.
—Roland Barthes (1952)
Building on his background as a journalist and educator, Gene Maeroff has assembled an impressive group of thinkers to generate a thought-provoking commentary on the current relationship between American education and the media. Imaging Education challenges the reader to think about the following questions: How should the media cover education? Should they report the public debate about the condition of education in "sound bite" journalistic fashion? Or should they provide an in-depth presentation of the unsettling truth, with all the uncertainty Americans express concerning what they really want education to be about?
Imaging Education is a timely contribution that will be especially useful to educational leaders confronting the future direction of American education. Journalists debating the best approach to covering this news will find in it a thoughtful yet constructive criticism of current media practices. The issues raised in this volume suggest to me that public K–12 education, higher education, and journalism are all facing crossroads regarding their purposes. As the millennium approaches, more and more of our institutions are facing the same dilemma—do we stay the same course that got us to where we are or do we change course?
In this volume Deborah Wadsworth, executive director of Public Agenda, describes K–12 public school educators facing a citizenry looking for a "modern version of the little red schoolhouse." She contends that three overarching moods—economic anxiety (are we losing our competitive economic advantage in an emerging global economy?), moral ambiguity, and institutional mistrust—drive American attitudes. The debate going on among the populace is whether we should return to the educational practices of mid-century (which presumably enabled our country to reach its preeminence) or embrace bold new approaches to an ever-changing international community. Engaging the public to answer these questions will not be a trivial pursuit. The short "life expectancy" of urban school superintendents, usually less than two years, is evidence of the seriousness of this debate.
Higher education faces similarly difficult choices about its future direction. Within the past five years, two major events have placed colleges at a policy crossroads. The recent passage of the California proposition eliminating race-based admissions reverses a 30-year practice of providing equal access to higher education for historically disadvantaged minorities. In sharp contrast was the release last year of Derek Bok and William G. Bowen's longitudinal study, The Shape of the River, documenting the positive effects of affirmative action in college admissions. These two events create a policy dilemma of astounding dimension for higher education leaders.
Journalists are at their own equally challenging crossroads in two areas: their role in society and their methods of reporting the news. The former issue is one of fundamental purpose. How can the media best serve the public good? Should it be through advocacy journalism (taking a position and influencing public opinion in that direction) or through civic journalism (presenting all sides of an issue so that the public can make an informed decision)? The second issue is set in an atmosphere of intense economic competition between the electronic media and the print media. What methods of reporting best resonate with viewers and readers? "If it bleeds, it leads," so goes one line of thinking. "Complexities are consumed by the quest for brevity," Maeroff observes. To this writer, these approaches may have led to a greater market share in the short-term financial sense, but they may have cost the media dearly in terms of the public's perception of their credibility.
The collected thinking in this volume is not spiritually uplifting. Educators will have the sense that as we read or view the media we are looking at ourselves in the mirror. Journalists and educators serve the same public, one that sends conflicting messages about what it really wants for its schools and how the news media should report the condition of education. Imaging Education seeks to shed light on these debates and challenges educators and journalists to consider how they can best serve the common good.
Maeroff suggests that education and the media are locked in a "symbiotic relationship that like a bad marriage leaves both parties feeling uncomfortable and, often, less than satisfied." (p. 221) How has this come to be? Maeroff is particularly insightful in the opening and closing chapters that trace the current condition of journalism to the Watergate era when "gotcha" journalism was revived. He observes, "For education, this new style of journalism has meant the piercing of institutional armor." (p. 3) Justifiably, he asks whether the media are leading the assault or merely reporting the battles they observe.
The reader is engaged with markedly different points of view on these questions. Educators David Berliner and Bruce Biddle are openly critical of the quality of journalistic analysis of public school performance and suggest a conspiracy to portray a failing public education system. Education analyst Denis Doyle's sharply worded criticism of public education leaves the reader wondering whether Berliner and Biddle are correct. Wadsworth's discussion of a public opinion survey done by her organization adds sobering reality: 69% of the general public believes that reporters cover news according to what sells; 70% believes that journalists use quotes out of context; and 80% believes that reporters cover "bad news because that is their job." Maeroff tests these perceptions through contributors' insightful analyses of how the media have covered three issues: testing, learning to read, and desegregation.
Imaging Education's analysis of the higher education beat appears less thorough, principally because of the narrowness of the issues the media have treated. One chapter discusses how the media have reported college costs at elite institutions. Other chapters discuss the reporting of admissions policies and the lucrative market for guidebooks that rank colleges. Regrettably, these issues relate only indirectly to the more vital policy questions facing higher education mentioned earlier in the book. The contributors persuasively question the value of focusing on such narrow issues.
Children are interviewed by a television news reporter as they leave Hawthorne Scholastic Academy following their first day of in-person learning on March 01, 2021, in Chicago, Illinois.
Contributors to the final section of the book on the visual media convey a sense that this newest medium is less well understood. In "A Gentleman's C for TV's Education Coverage," policy analyst George Kaplan suggests that television has not yet figured out how to capture the magic of learning in visually appealing ways. This is a legitimate point about a process that is not fully understood, or agreed upon, by educators themselves.
In the opinion of this writer, Maeroff should have invited additional contributors to discuss these crossroads issues more directly. Some opinions on the media's role in covering the current debate about the purposes of education would have strengthened the book's appeal to journalists. Furthermore, they might have shed light on the issues journalists face in ways that would promote understanding among educators. Constructive dialogue among these interdependent social institutions ought to occur. Educators need journalists to carry the questions of purpose to the public in a fair way so that civil discourse may occur. Journalists need educators because the role of education in our country goes to the heart of Americans' interests and priorities.
For educators who must deal with the media, this book is invaluable. It is a sobering analysis of a perplexing, troubling (yet essential) relationship between the media and the schools. It forces readers to think about the critical choices that educators must make if they are to tell the whole, but imperfect, truth about the condition of public education and the accessibility of higher education. Education will not improve until the public understands the challenges ahead of us and a dialogue occurs about our values. The media are the means by which this debate will be shaped, yet the debate comes at a time when accountability and risk-taking are not equally valued. The courage to "tell it like it is" will be required in equal measure from both educators and the media. Imaging Education adds to our understanding of these issues and challenges both groups to carry the debate forward in ways that promote truth and the common good.