Wonky & Duplicative Coverage Bores Readers, Says RealClear Education Writer Emmeline Zhao.

Unnamed (10)

There’s perhaps no one who reads (or at least skims) more education news every day than Emmeline Zhao. That’s because every weekday at 5:00 am, the RealClear Education writer gets up and starts looking for the 10-17 best pieces of the day, which get posted online (and sent out via email):

Later in the afternoon, she does it all over again (minus the email).

That’s a lot of looking at education news. And Zhao’s been doing it for almost three years, since the education-oriented branch of the RealClear network was launched. [See disclosure page here.]

So, what does Zhao think about the news she sees every day?

Too often, she says, she’s bored. Not because the news is boring, but because of the repetition and duplication that marks education journalism.

“Everybody’s covering the same stories,” she says in a phone interview just a few hours ago. Every time a new report comes out, “every major news outlet has to write a story.”

Just today, a new GAO report showing an increase in school segregation has gotten a round of coverage from major news and trade outlets. Last week, nearly everyone seemed to rush to cover the story that Jim Shelton had been hired to run the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative. Before that, it was the John King nomination. A few weeks ago it was the new NAEP scores

That would be fine if the stories differed in interesting ways, according to Zhao, but they’re more or less writing the same piece. “Maybe that made sense 30 or even 20 years ago,” she says. But not now, in the age of Twitter and Facebook. “I think that we haven’t changed the way that we cover things.”

“I don’t think it’s as bad as it’s not interesting,” she says. This is a major problem for education news stories. “We can’t get the news consumer population to care about education, to think it’s interesting and relevant. We fall into this wonkiness, and we forget about the rest of the world.”

And so education stories are too often divorced from the larger economy, or broader social or political environment. “There’s not enough relevance in the way we do our education reporting.”

Where the best journalism can be found is coming from the local and regional outlets, says Zhao. She names the St. Louis Post Dispatch, the Denver Post, the Tennessean, and the Chicago Sun-Times as some of her favorites. “All of those guys are doing really well covering their localities.”

She’s also a fan of the New Orleans Times-Picayune’s Danielle Dreilinger, and points to the work of her former Huffington Post colleague Joy Resmovits (now at the LA Times), who edited a recent Sonali Kohli piece about a nine year old transgender student.* Making issues that are abstract more relateable is key.

Another concern is that too little of the great local education reporting goes national. “All eyes should be on the states. Why aren’t people turning to state and local coverage?”

The lack of accountability-oriented coverage is also dispiriting to see, though it’s on a recent rise, according to Zhao. “At what point do you get tired and become a lapdog reporter and not a watchdog reporter?” She notes that the EWA EdBeat survey listed press releases as the most common source of story ideas for education reporters. “If we’re not the ones who are going to hold the system accountable, then who is?”

This is an issue that came up in Boston Globe editor Walter Robinson’s talk at EWA16.

She’d also like to see less focus on reactions and anecdotes and more focus on research data and other evidence. Good journalism shouldn’t just be about reactions, she says. (As a related ill, the over-reliance on sources speculating about future events is not too far behind.)

In the meantime, news coverage coming from national outlets needs to be revamped, says Zhao. “It’s rare that you look at a national outlet and see something that is out of the box. It’s not that it never happens, but it’s fewer and further between than at the state and local level.”

Related posts: WNYC’s Fertig Thinks Differently About Education ReportingNYT Reporter Aims To Understand Emotional DynamicsBehind The Scenes Of NPR’s School Money “Beast” [Cory Turner interview]; SoCal Public Radio Restaffs Education Desk, Launches “Good Schools” [Maura Walz interview].

*The original version of the sentence credited Resmovits with having written the piece.

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.