‘Sesame Street’ Researchers Slam Media for “Either/Or” Approach

Sesstreet
Over at The New Republic, researchers Melissa Kearney and Phillip Levine rip the media a new one over its coverage of their Sesame Street study.  

It’s a useful example of a tendency in journalism to render differences starkly and create false conflicts — and a great illustration of the good that researchers can do when they take their concerns about media coverage public rather than grumbling fearfully in private. Let’s see how the media outlets respond to being taken to task.

In What the Media Got Wrong About Our ‘Sesame Street’ Education Study, the authors described a “worrisome reaction” to the work they’d published: “headlines suggesting that we can just do away with preschool.”

Business Insider gets called out, and also The Atlantic, among others.

The authors say that they didn’t mean to suggest that one thing could or should replace the other:

Our study concludes that “Sesame Street” has some educational effects that are comparable in size to that of Head Start. But we do not believe that “Sesame Street” should substitute for preschool or other enriching activities…. We think the most important implication of this research is that TV—an inexpensive and readily accessible tool—can be used as a powerful and positive force to improve educational outcomes. We should not swap one good thing for another.

According to Doug Levin, who first flagged the story for me, it’s “not unusual for education media – like mainstream media – to hype technology & education stories, pro or con.” And indeed that may be a big part of the problem here: the rush to make things bigger and more dramatic than they really may be. 

But this “either/or” approach in particular is just what happens all too often in education journalism these days. I’m certainly guilty of having done it myself sometimes: taking a reductive, binary approach to the issue rather than describing a more nuanced, complementary world.

Going forward, let’s all be on the lookout for overly simplistic coverage and false tradeoffs or differences presented to us (or that we’re writing). There are lots of examples that come to mind from what I see reading education stories all day: reformers vs. reform critics, technology vs. teachers, or charters vs. district schools.

This is not to say that differences and tradeoffs don’t exist and shouldn’t ever be presented to readers, but rather that either/or shouldn’t be an overused default frame for the issue being discussed. There are other, probably more interesting and accurate ways to grab readers’ attention and tell them a story that they’ll want to read. 

Meantime, in a separate blog post (No, Sesame Street Was Not the First MOOC), writer Audrey Watters takes the researchers themselves to task for making a false and misleading comparison: 

Sesame Street was not the first MOOC. And really, it is not a MOOC at all. To argue such – to offer that analogy – is historically flawed, erasing other earlier educational media. Furthermore, the analogy erases important differences between the research and design of Sesame Street and that of MOOCs (particularly those MOOCs that have been popularized by the press).

Clearly, we’ve all got a lot of work to do.

Related posts: AltSchool, Media Hype, & the Dilemma of Innovation Stories

Alexander Russo

Alexander Russo is a freelance education writer who has created several long-running blogs such as the national news site This Week In Education, District 299 (about Chicago schools), and LA School Report. He can be reached on Twitter at @alexanderrusso, on Facebook, or directly at alexanderrusso@gmail.com.