Rethinking Your Education Coverage For Next Year

It’s summer. Kids are doing whatever they do during the summer. Ditto for teachers. But the new school year isn’t too far off. Some folks are already thinking about it. So maybe it’s time for education journalists to start doing the same.

One big idea to consider is the notion of rethinking the education beat, which currently is usually defined by a grade span (K-12) and a geographic boundary (district A, region B, etc.).

Particular beats like education may seem like they’re permanent parts of journalism, but that’s not the case.  Used to be, there were labor and poverty beats. Now, not so much.

Even as some beats are dying out, new beats are being added all the time. Race and culture beats were rare a few years ago, but now several major outlets have reporters covering those important topics.

And even at outlets with assigned beats like education, there’s nothing written in stone that reporters are assigned to them permanently. Some newspapers used to require reporters to rotate beats every few years, so as to bring fresh eyes and renew journalistic autonomy.

Tracking mainstream education coverage over the last year, it’s become clear to me that, while there are lots of extremely smart and hard-working people out there reporting about education, the coverage could still be better.

What would it take? Maybe the traditional education beat is part of the problem.

For starters, the education beat has become impossibly broad and fluid in its definition. Is the focus of an education reporter what’s going on in schools and districts — programs and materials and instruction — or is it the systemic and stuctural issues that shape school systems — like attendance areas, funding mechanisms, and assignment policies — or is it the challenges of the larger society?

In addition, the education beat as currently constructed often seems confused about whether it is meant to be focused on the successes and ills of the traditional public education system or on learning, more broadly defined, which might occur in a traditional school or a charter school or at home.

Last but not least, there are an awful lot of tired veteran education reporters out there who might need some sort of reboot to think about what they’re doing in fresh new ways. (A relatively high transience rate used to take care of that in education, but the EWA EdBeat survey showed that this is no longer so much the case.)

What could be done?

One approach might be to split the beat into two — a schools beat for one person, a community and social issues beat for another. Another possible solution might be creating a traditional schools beat for one person, and a non-traditional learning beat for another.

Alas, most news outlets aren’t interested or able to have two people cover a topic now covered by one (if that) reporter at present.

And so, realistically, the best we might be able to expect would be for reporters and editors to understand that the education beat is much more than geographic boundaries and programs — and to take an occasional look in the rearview mirror to make sure that their coverage isn’t all about one part of the education elephant. Nobody wants education coverage that focuses overwhelmingly or disproportionately on district schools, or non-traditional or experimental approaches, or deeper societal issues like racism & poverty.

A mindful effort to generate a mix of stories focusing on district, charter, and societal aspects of education would, I think, improve the coverage of the various efforts to prepare children for adult life — to help make it better, deeper, more nuanced, more engaging.

A first step might be for education teams to take a look back at their coverage from last year and map out the kinds of topics and issues that got covered, and think about whether the results seem about right or out of whack in some way.

Too much about school board politics? Maybe you could ease back on that next year. Too much about charter schools? Ditto. Little or nothing about middling schools? Maybe that could be a focus for next year. Unexpected breaking news will always require a certain amount of attention, and the incentives to cover extreme and dramatic situations are always going to be there, but a little bit of consideration might result in a more thoughtful mix of stories.

One of the toughest things about the education beat is that it’s so big and complicated. The great thing is that there’s always a new year and the chance to do things better.

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.