Think Tank Review Suggests Media Tilt Against Charters In 2015

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Looking for confirmation of the view that mainstream media coverage of education reform is wildly critical or credulous? Go somewhere else. A new report from the conservative-leaning Washington DC think tank AEI (which has published several case studies I’ve written) finds that “claims of media favoritism toward charter schooling—or hostility against it—are overstated.”

That’s right. Media coverage is not as overwhelmingly critical (or favorable) as some have claimed it is — at least when it comes to coverage of charter schools:

“On balance, in 2015, charter coverage was broadly mixed,” state the report authors (AEI staffers Rick Hess, Kelsey Hamilton, and Jennifer Hatfield).

The authors gathered over 200 mainstream news stories about charter schools during 2015, then coded a sample of them according to which outlet published them and whether the tenor of the coverage was critical or positive. 

Mixed coverage doesn’t mean there isn’t any tendency in the coverage that was examined, however. The report states that there is “some evidence of a noticeable anti-charter tilt.” Coverage of charters by major news outlets such as the NYT, WSJ, Washington Post, and others “tended to be somewhat more negative than positive.” 

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Figure 1 shows the results from AEI’s coding of 218 stories for 2015, of which 49 percent were neutral or balanced.

A tilt against charter schools during this period during which reform efforts are being reconsidered isn’t much of a surprise, however. Five years ago — and certainly 10 — the tilt was likely going the other way. But that doesn’t mean the study doesn’t include interesting and useful information.

There are also some surprises — Slate, for example. The AEI report finds that Slate’s coverage is much more negative than many other outlets. Slate (and Salon) “had nothing good to say about charter schooling,” according to the report.  

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“I honestly didn’t know what to expect,” says Hess about the report. “I wasn’t sure what the direction would be.” Still, he admits to being surprised that the NYT coverage was positive, and EdWeek also, and that Slate — which he compares to The New Republic — came out so negative.

As with any study, there are a number of caveats:

For starters, some will find it hard to ignore the source of the work, a right-leaning Washington DC think tank that favors charters, choice, and vouchers. 

Others, such as USA Today’s Greg Toppo, note that coverage should mirror reality. Charter school failures should generate charter school failure stories, not a balance. 

The decision to code some of Valerie Strauss’s columns as news — and the finding that her pieces about charters were evenly balanced between neutral and negative* — will raise red flags for some close readers of her work.

 There have been problems with attempts to code or rate education coverage in the past. A Center on Education Reform effort to rate news stories using baseball lingo (single, double, home run) was widely criticized for being arbitrary and ideological. For a hot minute in 2011, there was a site called FairSpin. (Me, neither.) Two reports from Brookings about media coverage didn’t seem to capture trends with any great depth or nuance. 

In addition, studies like these rely heavily on what time period they cover, how complete or incomplete they are, and how stories get coded. I’ve asked for the complete list of outlets whose work was coded, and for how each story was coded, so that we can see if we agree with the coding process. (The endnotes indicate that only 5-25 percent of each outlet’s 2015 charter school stories were coded.)

And yet, over all it seems like a good thing that AEI has taken a look at media coverage of a topic during a discrete period of time. As the authors write, “The media plays a crucial role in informing the public, refereeing policy deliberations, and explaining what school reforms mean for students and families.”

The main value of this report may be to encourage news outlets not included here to conduct some sort of annual review or look back at their work. In the past, I have recommended that news outlets take a regular look back at their own coverage to see if there are issues of balance or distribution of stories assigned and written that should be corrected.

Even without the issue of skewed coverage, there’s the question of getting into a rut in terms of topic selection — something I discussed with Scott Jaschik in a recent interview: Shut Up About Harvard (And TFA, Charters, Closings). Some outlets seem to get in a rut, writing over and over about certain topics in certain ways, which is repetitive and could be misleading to readers and the public. A regular review might help correct this, even if there’s no concern about the balance of coverage. 

Hess et al are thinking of doing an expanded version later in the summer, including additional outlets such as the Boston Globe, WSJ, and Chicago Tribune. They’re also working on a look back at coverage from 2005 that’s slated to come out next month.

*Correction: Original version failed to specify that the balance was between negative and neutral.

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.