The Appeal – & Challenges – Of Comparing Education Outlets

On Tuesday, Success Charters delivered an 11-page letter to the New York Times that claims to describe an imbalance in the Times’ coverage of school staff who abuse children verbally or physically.

“In a week, with a computer and Google, Success Academy discovered nearly 50 such incidents that occurred over the last 18 months… the Times has focused much of its education coverage during this same time period around a combination of feel-good stories about the district and continued attacks on Success Academy.”

The letter, which includes links to NY Daily News and Post coverage of several incidents going back 18 months, is addressed to Metro section deputy editor Amy Virshup, who edited the Times’ most recent story about Success teacher Charlotte Dial, and references the interview with her that was posted here last week.

“While the above examples may read like a police blotter, they all occurred inside or near classrooms where our children go to school.”

Indeed, it’s hard not to be surprised and upset by the roundup of allegations against abusive teachers — regardless of your position on the Times’ coverage of Success.  One audio recording of a teacher includes yelling at a student and what sounds like physical abuse.

The letter claims that the Times ignored the case: “Around the same time that the horrifying audio of Mr. Perry’s abuse was covered by outlets all around the city, the Times penned a story reporting that Brooklyn Collegiate’s girls basketball team lost 117-8 to Francis Lewis High School.”

While nobody has verified this new Success Academy coverage comparison, the urge to take a side-by-side look at different outlets’ coverage of the same beat is an understandable one. In theory, at least, competing news outlets would overlap on covering newsworthy events.

In practice, however, that’s not what happens except in the most high-profile situations. Some outlets — the Daily News and Post, for example, tend to write about teacher abuse stories. Others — the Times — might tend to write about other issues. The pattern can be accidental, as different reporters develop different niches (or ruts, depending on your point of view). Or it can be compensatory, with reporters tending to avoid trying to cover what someone else is already doing. At a fundamental level, newsrooms may have different philosophies about what is most important to cover. The Times, the tabloids, Politico NY, WNYC, and ChalkbeatNY come at the education beat differently. 

For her part, Virshup has already denounced the letter on Twitter, responding to Politico New York’s Eliza Shapiro (who may have been the first reporter to post the letter):

“Seems @MoskowitzEva missed our 7 stories abt Sean Shaynak. Point remains:We’d write abt that video from any school.”

Vox’s Libby Nelson raised the issue of a possible look into the situation by the NYT Public Editor, Margaret Sullivan, whose job it is to assess the adequacy of the news outlet’s coverage of complicated issues. However, Sullivan is going to take a new job outside the Times within the next few weeks, so there’s not a lot of time.

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.