MEDIA: SCHOOLS AND EDUCATION - Media Roundup. More column inchesdevoted to educational issues

Once the beat that rookie reporters got stuck with, education is

becoming a hot topic with the media. David Ward looks at who's covering

education, and how the focus is evolving from local to national

importance.



Reflecting the increasingly active role parents are taking in how their

children are taught, coverage of education issues in both national and

local media outlets is expanding at a rapid rate.



"We've seen in the last several years that virtually every major

newspaper or TV station has taken a great interest in education and has

dedicated a significant amount of time and space to covering it," says

Susan Aronson, VP and head of the education practice at NCG/Porter

Novelli. "That's different from 10 years ago."



Many newspapers now have two or three reporters devoted to kindergarten

through 12th grade. Much of the coverage goes beyond write-ups of school

board meetings and rankings of local schools into fairly nuanced

analysis and occasional advocacy of the latest teaching practices and

trends. "You have papers like The Sacramento Bee that take a real

community interest," notes Aronson. "They may push for specific policies

they feel will better education, or call for parents to get more

involved in local schools."



For the most part, education tends to be a local news story, although

there are some overall trends that impact classrooms across the

country.



"We tend to drive a lot of education stories at the local level," says

Darrell Capwell, spokesman for the American Federation of Teachers. "But

when something larger happens - statewide standards tests, the federal

education bill, or school discipline - we pitch those to larger papers

such as The New York Times or The Philadelphia Inquirer."



In addition, magazines such as Time, Newsweek, and US News & World

Report are now regularly reporting on the state of American education;

they're not just tracking how students are learning, but also

highlighting the dilemma faced by many school districts in recruiting

and retaining quality teachers.



There has also been a great deal written on the home-schooling

phenomenon, although it can be argued this is an example of journalists

pushing rather than reporting on a trend. "I think (home schooling) gets

more coverage than is merited by the numbers, because you're talking

about anywhere from a half million to 1.5 million kids out of 55 million

in K-12 education," says Gene Maeroff, director of the Hechinger

Institute on Education and the Media at Teachers College, Columbia

University. The Institute hosts seminars that bring together hundreds of

education writers to talk not only about the issues, but also ways to

better coverage. "I think home schooling is over-covered because it's an

interesting artifact, and journalists like artifacts," he adds.



The big issues



Like other reporting beats, education tends to be dominated by a handful

of themes. Currently, the major issues are school funding and teachers'

salaries, standardized tests and the ranking of individual schools, and

violence in and around the classroom.



Carol Halstead, president of New York-based Halstead Communications,

says it helps to understand what these prevalent topics are, and tailor

your pitch accordingly. "You have to think about ways to get your

client, be it a school or educational association, to fit into those

issues," she says. Halstead represents Junior Achievement, a group that

brings business leaders into schools to help students get practical

applications of their academic learning. "If people are talking about

the job market or if it's the college application season or the

graduation season, those are good opportunities to talk about a program

like Junior Achievement," she says.



Ironically, while polls have shown education to be increasingly

important to the general public, the education beat at many media

outlets was long considered only a temporary stop by many ambitious

reporters. "Traditionally, the education beat was for the low man on the

totem pole who ended up covering school board meetings," says Lynn

Olson, senior editor with leading trade publication Education Week. "But

I really think that's changing, in part because there's better depth to

the coverage and more interest in the issues."



These days, the education beat often extends into other segments, such

as local tax fights, politics and, in some cases, race relations and

integration.



"That's all part of the school story," says Maeroff. "I think one of the

reasons people find education coverage interesting is because it runs

into so many areas. That gives it a kind of dimension and

comprehensiveness that you don't find as frequently in other beats."



Reaching beyond local areas



Despite its local flavor, there are some education writers who have

achieved national reputations for excellence. Among them are Michael

Martinez of the Chicago Tribune, Jay Matthews of The Washington Post,

USA Today's Tamara Henry, Philip Dine of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch,

Jodi Wilgoren and Jacques Steinberg of The New York Times, The Hartford

Courant's Rick Green and Robert Frahm, Massie Ritsch (who focuses on

private and parochial schools) of the Los Angeles Times, Dell Mezzacappa

of The Philadelphia Inquirer, and Olson of Education Week. Among

broadcast journalists, the standout is John Merrow, a former teacher

whose program The Merrow Report airs on public TV stations across the

country.



As arguably the best-known K-12 trade publication, Education Week is

regularly pitched by PR firms, according to Olsen, but many of the ideas

are rejected. "The main thing for us is that we're a national

publication, so for us to cover something, you have to prove that has

more than a local interest," she says. "It has to be the first of its

kind."



While it has been tougher to get journalists to focus on education since

the terrorist attacks of September 11, PR people insist that schools are

bound to remain an important, newsworthy subject over the long term.

"We've seen post-September 11 polling that shows education still ranks

in the top-three major issues," Aronson says. "There's still a high

level of interest in education, and if September 11 hasn't changed that,

I don't see what will."



Halstead currently represents The Center for Arts Education, a group

funded by The Annenberg Foundation to bring arts programs back to New

York City's public schools. She says arts program funding is the type of

issue with broad appeal to reporters, many of whom are parents of

school-age children. An announcement earlier this year that the Center

had received an additional five-year grant from Annenberg, as well as

funding from the New York City board of education, was covered by The

New York Times, New York Daily News, Newsday, Education Week, and local

television outlets.



While basically a local story, Halstead says she is already working to

pitch to media outlets in other parts of the country, adding, "It's a

model for the rest of the country, and we're just starting to look at it

in that sense."



WHERE TO GO



Newspapers: The New York Times; USA Today; The Washington Post; Chicago

Tribune; St. Louis Post-Dispatch; The Hartford Courant; The Philadelphia

Inquirer; The Sacramento Bee



Magazines: Parents; Time; Newsweek; US News & World Report; Child;

Parenting; Family Life; Home Education; Home Schooling Today



Trade titles: Education Week; Instructor; NEA Today; American Teacher;

American Educator; American School Board Journal; School Board News;

Language; Electronic School; Education & Computer Connection



TV & Radio: Local television news outlets; The Merrow Report; National

Public Radio.



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