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
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
"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
"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
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
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
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