Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

The Newspaper's Responsibility

Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

The Newspaper's Responsibility

Article excerpt

In the end, Ms. Watson asserts, journalists cannot allow themselves to be swayed by consideration of whether a story will be good for the image of public schools. The job of journalists is to tell the truth and help readers understand the challenges that society is facing.

Every reporter or editor who has ever been responsible for the education beat has received "the Call." On the other end of the telephone line is a principal, teacher, or parent. The caller is responsible for public relations at a local school and wants your paper to cover this year's sponsored walk, canned-food drive, or reading marathon. "You write so many negative stories about schools," she begins. "Don't you think it's time you printed something good?"

The Call can take many forms. Sometimes it is from the local superintendent trying to get positive press on a pet project. Sometimes it is from the governor's spokesperson looking for coverage of the latest state education initiative. Teachers, union leaders, college professors, and, of course, professional public relations people make the Call, too. They all deliver the same argument when they phone a newspaper office looking for a story promoting their cause or product: Isn't it time someone wrote something positive about schools?

Exasperated education writers share war stories about the Call whenever they get together at seminars and press events. "Why," they ask one another, "don't people understand that our job is to cover schools, not to make them look good?" They recite all the positive stories they have written about outstanding teachers, curriculum programs that work, and successful students at the same time as they have probed the more difficult issues of dismal test scores, curriculum battles, school violence, and crowded classrooms. "Is it our fault," they ask, "that people only remember the negative stories?"

Just what is the responsibility of newspapers for shaping public perceptions of education? As a line editor supervising education coverage for a large regional newspaper, I ask myself that question frequently. I have become aware that the public views schools in a harsher light than do either my reporters or I. Parents constantly fret about school violence, even though crime statistics show relatively few serious incidents in most schools. Readers worry that children across the board are no longer learning to read or do arithmetic, even though schools in our region generally score well above state and national averages on achievement tests. Families are considering private schools even in wealthy districts that send most of their public school graduates on to four-year colleges. What is going on here?

Research on the media's impact on public perceptions of the schools is sparse, and what there is mostly dates back to the past decade, before newspapers caught up with the national preoccupation with education. Furthermore, who can separate the influence of newspapers, magazines, television, radio, and even newsgroups on the World Wide Web? To what degree are perceptions also shaped by personal experiences and what people hear from their children, friends, and neighbors? We working journalists are left with little more than our own hypotheses, most of which - naturally - reflect favorably on our efforts and intentions.

In any case, there is no question that schools face significant challenges. In such well-documented cases as the school governance reforms in Chicago, inner-city districts appear to be fighting a losing battle against poverty, neglect, and neighborhood violence, despite the heroic efforts of some dedicated educators. Students in poor neighborhoods rarely receive as good an education as those in affluent communities. Is that the fault of the media? Only the top students take enough math and science to prepare them for the technological age. And universities report a steady increase in entering students who need remedial classes in basic subjects before they can tackle college work. …

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