New EdBeat Survey Reveals Diversity & Independence Challenges – But No Shortage Of Enthusiasm

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So the Education Writers Association (of which I am a member) is currently holding its 69th annual summit (in Boston, we’re all here tweeting #EWA16), and also put out a new report about the state of education journalism.

Some of the report findings have generated a bit of discussion around issues of diversity, gender differences in wages received, possible over-reliance on press releases and other official forms of communication, and — most of all — the unexpectedly upbeat tone of the findings.

According to Edweek* researcher Holly Yettick, the optimism of the responses from the education journalists who participated in the study was surprising. “I think of journalists as being skeptical people,” she said. “I expected it to be darker.”

We also learn some things about the overall number of education reporters and editors out there these days — a number not previously known to me (and much larger than I had expected).

Called the “State of the Education Beat,” the report presented at the Sunday lunch portion of the EWA conference, presents a strongly upbeat view of education journalism and its prospects.

According to a writeup from Ed Week’s Mark Walsh (Survey Finds a ‘Golden Age’ of Education Journalism), “the typical education journalist in the United States is female, makes $55,000 a year, works for a newspaper and/or an online news outlet, is satisfied with her job and views the beat as prestigious, and is optimistic about the future of the field.”

Indeed, according to the report promo copy,” Two-thirds of respondents say education journalism is going in the right direction at their news outlets. A majority hold that view of the field as a whole. The report challenges the widely accepted narrative that education is a steppingstone beat with negligible prestige.”

Wait, what? Isn’t journalism in a free fall? Isn’t education the lowest-prestige beat in the newsroom, full of rookies and/or draftees? Aren’t reporters losing their jobs all over the place, and lamenting the state of journalism even as they pine for their former careers?

Apparently that’s not the feeling — at least not within the highly specialized (bubble?) world of education reporting. “The study concludes that there is evidence that the nation is living in a ‘golden age’ of education journalism,” according to Walsh.

But that doesn’t mean that there aren’t challenges — or questions about the research being presented.

Conducted by the EdWeek Research Center, the findings are based on a nonrepresentative 400-person sample of those who responded to the survey questionnaire.

The report doesn’t say what the response rate was, or how many EWA members were surveyed. However, research head Yettick says that the response rate (14 percent) was one of the best she’s ever experienced doing phone and email surveys. Yettick adds that Pew and others have found that survey responses largely remain representative even as the response rate varies.

She also says that EWA currently has 1,436 journalist members, and that the survey went to both journalists members and “education journalists from external lists of journalists.” In total, 3,167 people were invited to the survey. That’s a much larger number than I would have expected the education press corps to be.

Some early reactions to the report release focused on the gender wage gap between male and female journalists, reported at about $3,000. This is especially important since so many education journalists are women in their mid-30s who likely have family and other obligations to take care of.

Another notable finding is that 70 percent of education reporters list press releases/events/PR person as a source for stories — the most frequent response for reporters asked about the source of story ideas in the last month.

“Public relations efforts are an important part of education coverage,” notes the report introduction language.” News releases, news conferences, or public relations professionals are the top sources of story ideas for education journalists who took the survey.”

While press releases are tremendously useful, over-reliance on them could be troubling, given how infrequently stakeholders (government agencies, advocacy groups, nonprofits) voluntarily share unflattering information and the public’s reliance on journalism for an independent view.

On Monday night, one of the Boston Globe journalists featured in Spotlight encouraged reporters to focus on the news that stakeholders don’t send/want covered. And yet under 50 percent of those who responded to the survey report that their story ideas commonly come from actual students, parents, or teachers.

Some observers focused on the demographic makeup of education reporters, who are (like most classroom teachers) predominantly white and female. The EWA report compares education journalism to a 2014 study of the journalism industry as a whole, finding that edreporters are more likely to be female and minority than journalism over all.

That’s great, but it’s not an entire even comparison or the appropriate comparison to make. While the education journalism diversity demographic may be higher than journalism as a whole, it’s still lower than the the 30 percent of college graduates who are people of color — and much lower than the 50 percent of current K-12 students who are kids of color. The diversity finding “doesn’t mean ‘problem solved,'” says Yettick.

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.