The Strange Off-Balance State Of Local Investigative Journalism About Schools

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Lost in all the big ESEA news last week was this NYT piece (The Search for Local Investigative Reporting’s Future) whose basic premise is that it’s hard to do great local investigative work — and there’s not nearly as much of it as there used to be:

“For decades, local investigative reporting has been done largely by regional newspapers like The Globe. With their substantial staffs — often several hundred journalists — newspapers could do the painstaking, time-consuming and often unglamorous work that can lead to breakthrough stories.”

I’ve asked a bunch of education editors and journalism experts for their thoughts on (a) whether there has been a real decline in investigative work on local education coverage and (b) reasons why (beyond the obvious). I’ll let you know whatever responses I get.

In the meantime, it’s my impression that there have been some amazing examples of local investigative journalism about education, like the Tampa Bay Times series about the re-segregation of some schools in Florida’s Pinellas County (recently recognized by CJR as one of the best stories of the year), or Catalyst Chicago’s look into the infamous $20 million SUPES contract that led to the downfall of Barbara Byrd-Bennett.  The LA Times’ Howard Blume unearthed the plan to expand charter schools in LA not too long ago.

There’s also been a bit of growth in local coverage thanks to a few outlets like ChalkBeat, and national coverage via EdWeek, Hechinger, and the mainstream outlets. 

But either by intention or lack of sufficient resources, most of these outlets don’t seem particularly investigative in their focus — they’re usually covering events and announcements or telling sometimes amazing stories about schools and programs. The recent Baltimore Sun series on immigrant students was amazing and revealing but not particularly investigative in its focus.  Ditto for the recent Hechinger Report series. Even The Seventy Four, which I had thought/hoped would be deeply investigative in its approach (along the lines of VICE or Al Jazeera), seems to have focused more on explainers and interviews.

There are good reasons for the decline in investigative journalism, as the Times points out. There are 40 percent fewer folks working in newsrooms since 2003. Investigative stories don’t always generate large readerships. Credit for breaking stories can quickly be lost in the fast-moving world of social media, making in-depth investigations not immediately worth it.

In addition, I’d point out that investigative pieces can be uncomfortable to report and write, and often times create controversy and conflict when they come out. (Take, for example, the LA Times’ recent decision to publish the Rafe Esquith allegations and LA School Report’s decision to post the raw file online.) 

And of course there’s the rise of “solutions” journalism, which David Bornstein recently described to me as the necessary counterpoint to investigative pieces.

In the absence of deeply investigative pieces from mainstream and independent news outlets it seems like the most consistent investigative work in education — other than the occasional piece by ProPublica — is being left to outlets like The Progressive, American Prospect, Jacobin, and In These Times that have clear ideological perspectives.

From my limited but not minimal perspective, the cumulative result is a fairly steady supply of pieces about charter schools, reform organizations, and financial problems without a balancing supply of pieces about whatever might be going on inside the traditional public school system.

This isn’t to say that there aren’t problems with charter schools and reform organizations but rather that the current education writing ecosphere seems to lack a healthy mix of investigative pieces and might not be creating the balanced picture of what’s really going on in public education that policymakers and the public need to know.

The point here isn’t to blame anyone for what’s going on, but rather just to point it out and reflect on some of the dynamics — and to ask for alternate view points, examples, and perspectives as they may occur to you.

Related posts: Re-Imagining Education Coverage: Failure & SuccessMore Questions About LA Times’ Decision To Publish District Allegations.

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.