by Alexander Russo
Last week I had the chance to talk with PDK’s Josh Starr about the media coverage of the organization’s annual poll.
Generally, Starr and his colleagues seemed pleased by the amount and quality of the attentionthey’d received. The main concern was that reporters tend to miss opportunities to return to the poll results during the year in between polls — and organizations like PDK tend to dump tons of data on journalists rather than spreading it out over a period of time (which PDK is doing this year to some extent).
At the time, Starr also shared some thoughts about how the media sausage gets made from the perspective of his former role as a district superintendent.
In case it isn’t already clear and obvious, the process that results in media coverage of schools (or anything else) is pretty messy. One big issue is how a story get assigned. Is it pitched by someone from the outside, or suggested internally by an editor or colleague based on personal experience? Is it based on what the competition is reporting, or what’s happening on Facebook or Twitter?
Often, it’s not very clear to readers, which I think is a shame. (Reporters should disclose from where a story originated, according to no one else but me.) But it’s pretty obvious where stories come from to the folks who are their sources and subjects. And that’s what Starr told me.
Especially as a district superintendent, Starr noted that education coverage of the district was often driven by social media and bloggers rather than by what he considered the central challenges or interests of parents and teachers that he was pondering or addressing.
“There’s the whole blogosphere looms so large in shaping public opinion and forcing people to respond,” he recalled. “You’d pull your hair out over what they’re reporting, the sexy stuff that has nothing to do with the agenda.”
“I have never had a reporter say, ‘Yes, I got this story from a blog,’ but you can see a throughline that exists,” says Starr when asked for a specific example. “A blog posts about it, then all of a sudden reporters are calling about it.”
In some cases, as in situations where the district is missing something big going on or trying to hide a failure, this is obviously a good thing. But in other situations, it can mean that a prolific blogger — sometimes with an ideological agenda or narrow point of view — can distract news coverage from other issues that might be more important.
Blogs and social media are coming close to eclipsing mainstream media, according to Starr — at least in terms of their ability to generate issues that reporters then cover. “They can say whatever they want. They don’t have the same rules,” he says.
And they seed mainstream coverage. “Some reporters read the blogs in order to keep up get fed information that leads them down certain pathways. The consequence is that the blog posts become the initial framing for a mainstream story….You’re just playing defense all the time.”
My sense is that this is more of an issue in small and medium districts, where reporters are newer and lack as much background and resources to be able to sift through advocates’ claims and hidden motivations. But it happens in large and national publications, too. Sometimes the bloggers are just better-sourced and more knowledgeable than anyone else. Even then, however, I think it would be fair to the blogger and credibility-generating to the mainstream news publication if the sources of the ideas behind news stories were indicated to readers.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.