Longtime education journalist Beth Hawkins, now writer in residence for Education Post, is generally sympathetic to the challenges of covering schools.
But that doesn’t mean she thinks all’s well in education journalism when it comes to the impact of nonprofit journalism, reporting and assignment of stories, and other aspects of the ecosystem. During a recent phone interview, the veteran journalist worries about over-reliance on “hand grenade” headlines, press release-based coverage, and the desegregation narrative.
[Disclosure: Hawkins’ employer is, along with the AFT, a sponsor of THE GRADE.]
“I hear about people being overworked, and anxious for time and wanting time to do ambitious projects,” she said in a recent phone interview shortly after the Education Writers Association conference in Boston. “I hear a lot of sincere desire to get it right. There’s a widespread understanding that the stakes on this beat are high ones.”
“There’s no shortage of great work out there,” she says, based on her experience as a judge in the writing contest this year. In some categories it was really tough to narrow it down, she says, citing small and nonprofit newsrooms in particular.“It’s gratifying to see people trying so hard to fulfill what they perceive as a civic responsibility.”
In particular, Hawkins admires the New Orleans coverage from Slate and the Hechinger Report, and the big package done by EdWeek, taking on a variety of perspectives. EdWeek “really made use of the Internet’s possibilities for packaging and presenting stories. It was great.”
She also praises the Tampa Bay Times series on Pinellas County — though her favorite was the Baltimore Sun’s series on immigrant students. “That was really vivid storytelling, and the reporter was willing and able to watch for those golden moments that were so telling to unfold.”
She found the moment where teachers realize that letting refugee students communicate with family members who remain in danger was more important than the general ban on cellphone use in class.
“That moment communicates more than expository prose ever will.”
As to problem areas, Hawkins starts by noting that the average education reporter is a 36 year old woman making roughly $55,000 – roughly $10,000 less than it takes for a single adult to live a middle class lifestyle in Minneapolis, which is an inexpensive place to live compared to most.
The average salary seems “a little bit broken if we all recognize how vital a function this is. We’re asking people to sacrifice.”
And the surge of nonprofit education news outlets in recent years hasn’t had the broader effects on other outlets that she’d hoped.
“I feel that the nonprofits have charged into this space for serious policy oriented readers. But this trend has not done a better job of prodding legacy media to cover education in a less transactional way.”
If funders’ hope or expectation was that the nonprofit coverage would make the conversation smarter, it’s done so only within the world of readers who follow education. Nonprofit news is “not pushing the dailies or their readers.”
[This is an issue that has been raised in the past, including in this post: Online Education News: Boring Glut — Or Golden Age?.]
Meanwhile, education reporters at traditional commercial news outlets and nonprofits are chasing pageviews and reacting to press releases way more than they should, according to Hawkins.
Commercial news stories are shorter and shorter, and – according to the EWA survey, at least – generated frequently by press releases and PR people.
This is all the more problematic because districts increasingly “have taken control of their own communications tools,” Hawkins notes – essentially doing an end run around the media and going directly to readers. Districts can push information directly to parents and the public, which could encourage outlets to go beyond press releases (but apparently hasn’t done so).
In particular, Hawkins rails against “anecdotal ledes based on flak-escorted flash visits to classrooms.”
And the focus on data that has marked some newsroom practices in recent years hasn’t necessarily improved the quality of the coverage, says Hawkins. More data doesn’t make outlets more thoughtful.
As an example, Hawkins cites a series of “breathless” school violence headlines in St. Paul over the past several months: “There was one sensational headline after another about violence in the schools…. But violence in St. Paul schools was not rising.” Just one story noted the real violence levels, she says.
All too often, according to Hawkins, her news feed is filled with “hand grenade” headlines that are simplistic, ahistorical, context-free.
And the recent surge in integration-themed stories may not be helpful, she says. “We all want ‘the beloved community,’ where kids would learn together and live together and learn from each other, but I feel that the danger of everybody glomming onto that as this year’s education topic is that we’re not necessarily getting coverage that makes us smarter.”
“I’m worried about the glut [of segregation stories] to come, and worried that we are starting to see all kinds of stuff hooked into integration… It feels bizarre, like we’ve advanced this one narrative.”
Hawkins – who was herself bused as a child — calls desegregation a narrative that requires just as much skepticism and challenge as any other.
The segregation focus is especially problematic according to Hawkins if it’s addressed superficially or wishfully, ignoring Black Lives Matter. Reporters cover both topics gingerly because they are “scared of appearing insensitive or being called anti-integration.”
As a result, they’re “failing to challenge really difficult narratives.”
This is another issue that’s come up before, as in EdJournalism May Soon Reach Peak Integration Coverage.
Agree or disagree with her views, you can find Hawkins on Twitter and online. Her pieces have been appearing all over the place lately, including at Medium and other sites. She’s recently written about the lack of adult response when it was revealed that she was being abused by a teacher. Other folks working for Education Post with a journalism background include Maureen Kelleher (happy birthday!) and Tracy Dell’Angela.