Re-Imagining Education Coverage: Failure & Success

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This image has nothing to do with the blog post that follows.

Let’s be honest. It’s easy to dismiss so-called “solutions” journalism. It’s such a goofy name. In education, at least, it’s distractingly associated with the Gates Foundation (who’s funded the Seattle Times’ Education Lab).

There’s a long and highly-valued tradition among journalists for doing the opposite of finding solutions. That’s not what they do.

But even despite all those drawbacks and distractions, there’s also a tremendous appeal to the notion that media outlets can and should provide a mix of investigative pieces and coverage of progress (or attempts at progress) that are being made in even the most troubled situations.

Or at least that’s the case that David Bornstein makes in his work with the Solutions Journalism Network: that journalism should include a mix of investigative work (think Stephanie Simon) and coverage of promising research and programs (think Paul Tough).

“It’s the yin to the yang of investigative journalism,” Bornstein told me in a recent phone call. 

To hijack a common newsroom saying, journalism is doing a decent job afflicting the comfortable, but not so good at comforting the afflicted. (Or, as Bornstein puts it, “Really smart people sometimes fall into writing that lacks nuance and creativity.”)

In newsrooms and panels around the country, Bornstein has been making the case that journalism is currently out of whack, focusing too narrowly on its role as “disinfectant.” 

[Disclosures: The Gates Foundation invited me to moderate a panel at its most recent education conference and paid my travel expenses. This site is funded by the AFT and Education Post. I am a member of EWA, which has held at least one panel on the solutions approach.]

According to Bornstein, the Solutions Network has worked with about 40 different news organizations and have seen roughly 20 different funders. The outlets include the Boston Globe [funded by Nellie Mae], Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Detroit Free Press [violence prevention], Univision, Fusion, PBS NewsHour, Cleveland Plain Dealer, and WAMU.

Agree with him or not — I’m on the fence — it’s useful to understand what Bornstein’s talking about.

Understanding solutions journalism requires knowing a bit about how journalism gets produced: In pretty much every situation, editors and reports make a choice about how to come at the topic.Take high school dropouts.  One approach would be to focus on the schools with the highest dropout rates, pointing out how poorly they are serving kids and using public dollars. Another approach would be to focus on schools making progress lowering their dropout rates — or at least trying to do so — and exploring what if any tactics could be used in other places.  A third approach, is to focus on a mix of success and failure, ideally in some way that’s representative of the larger trend rather than focusing on extremes or outliers.

Too often, if not exclusively, journalists in education and other beats these days tend to focus on exposing the problems, flaws, and setbacks, notes Bornstein. It’s an honorable and important function, exposing failure. (It’s my natural tendency to point out flaws, so call me guilty on this front.) But what’s missing in that conversation? And what’s the likely result of overdoing it?

“It’s like a parent criticizing a child every day and expecting the child to do better,” says Bornstein.

If focusing on flaws becomes the vast majority of what editors and reporters spend their time doing, there are problems. Producing that kind of journalism can come to seem a waste of time, painting the same picture again and again. A focus on failure can give the public and policymakers a skewed understanding of what’s going on in schools.

And despite the powerful feelings of outrage that such stories can produce, relying on them too much can actually limit the will to make changes by making the situation seem hopeless.

“It’s like a smoke detector that goes off all the time, and eventually gets turned off or merely ignored,” he says.

That’s why folks are taking up the “solutions” approach, on specific beats (as in the Seattle Times) or more generally (as with the Huffington Post).  

Education-focused examples of the solutions approach, or a mix of coverage that includes problems and solutions, is out there if you look for it: I had seen this Sam Chaltain piece in the NYT about the bus. Had you seen this Buffalo News series? Me, neither.  Last month, SJN and the Hechinger Report produced a guide for education reporters interested in rejiggering their coverage. 

To be sure, there are lots of reasons that media coverage tends to stay away from progress-focused stories:  Failures and flaws are much easier to find, and can generate more attention than progress (which is by its nature tentative and partial).  Careful reporting on progress requires a much greater level of detail and nuance to pull off well, making it harder writing. 

“Problems scream,” says Bornstein. “Solutions whisper.”  

Professionally and emotionally, it’s much safer for journalists to cover problems in terms of winning and keeping respect from other reporters – sort of like how it’s safer in general to express cynicism than hope. Everyone wants to be seen as smart and tough. Nobody wants to seem slow or credulous. And so, given a choice between writing something that could be described as a hatchet job and a puff piece, many reporters choose the former.  

One’s sources and subjects might object to a hatchet job (or a series of them), but it’s the views of newsroom colleagues that reporters and editors have to deal with day after day (along with social media criticism, which I believe is more powerful than most would admit). 

The middle ground – examining serious efforts to address problems — get left out. 

Bornstein notes that most of what he would consider good “solutions journalism” today is self-funded by news organizations themselves, and that the Solutions Network came out of the success of the NYT Fixes column, which runs weekly since 2010. “It was really an idea that emerged out of discussions with fellow journalists who had the same concerns with journalism we had.” “Gates isn’t our top funder,” he says. It’s not a Gates-led idea.” In fact, according to Bornstein, the Seattle Times went to Gates not the other way around, and other outlets taking this approach are finding other funders.

There is of course a danger that education coverage could go too far the other way, focused on outlier successes or “hero” scenarios that aren’t replicable by ordinary educators and officials. There was a time — the mid-2000’s until maybe 2010 — when it seemed like education journalism trended that way. New ideas were declared successes prematurely. Skepticism was hard to find. But in 2015 there’s arguably a need for some re-balancing.

What Bornstein and his allies are talking about may sound like a nerdy, good-government approach to journalism. Finding places where “someone is doing better against a problem” is a distinctly unsexy approach. But he makes the case that there is good work to done focusing on solutions, and that there are some journalists who’ve built great careers exploring them (Tough and Atul Gawande are among those he mentions). He argues that readers find it engaging and points to this study

Even if solutions aren’t your thing — it’s much more satisfying taking the investigative approach – reporters and editors could at least try to include both the failures of the existing system and of recent efforts to reform it.  

Too often recently — this is my observation rather than Bornstein’s — media scrutiny has been focused on whatever reform effort is stumbling or falling short, often bypassing the deep problems that have gone unaddressed in the dominant public school model. Investigate away, but make sure you’re taking a hard look across the board.  

Next month, the Solutions Network is rolling out a database with close to 1,000 examples from around the world, and a membership-based service that will give reporters access to ideas and assistance. Another thousand stories have been collected and are being tagged.  

Related posts:“Solutions” Journalism Gets A New Education GuideThe Promise and Peril of “Solutions” JournalismBoston Globe Launches Expanded Education EffortWhat The Gates Foundation’s Learned About Funding Education JournalismIs Education Journalism Over-Focused On Reform Battles?

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.