How school leaders can keep education in the news


School leaders who invest more in communication to see increased media coverage on education.
School leaders who invest more in communication often see increased media coverage.

A recent study from the Brookings Institution says education isn’t getting its fair share of national news coverage–and isn’t getting the right stories reported when it does.

In 2009, only 1.4 percent of all national news consisted of education-related stories, up slightly from 2008’s paltry 0.7 percent, according to the study.

Education stories that did get reported tended to focus on episodic events, such as last spring’s budget crisis or last fall’s H1N1 outbreak. “Periodic crime sprees” also topped national news reports.

In comparison, other public policy issues such as foreign affairs, economics, health care, business, and crime get more—and better—coverage.

Released in December, the study reviewed 551 news stories from national television, cable, radio, print, and online sources, along with 691 wire stories from the Associated Press (AP).

Local news fared better in the report and was seen as less reactive. However, the lack of coverage about the actual work of schools remains a problem, even on the local level.

Substantive issues such as teacher quality, the impact of poverty, or compensation reform often get short shrift in lieu of stories about school board politics or athletics, says the report, called “Invisible: 1.4 Percent Coverage for Education is Not Enough.”

Reporters also miss important opportunities to discuss the latest research or show how educators are using new teaching methods to get better results with students.

The lack of news coverage on education-related issues matters more than ever, because only one-third of American adults have school-aged children.

To help bridge the information gap created by scant news coverage, school leaders should invest more in communication, according to the study’s authors, Darrell M. West, Grover J. “Russ” Whitehurst, and E.J. Dionne, Jr.

“Schools need to understand that communications is important to their education mission,” the authors write in the study’s executive summary. “Time spent to inform reporters, parents, and the community about what is happening inside schools is a good investment in public understanding.”

School public relations experts agree. “It all comes down to relationships,” says Mary Louise Bewley, who directs school and community relations for Indianapolis Public Schools (IPS). “We’re extremely accessible and open.”

Greater transparency and responsiveness pays off in more and better media coverage, Bewley says, noting that the district is on TV or in the paper at least twice a week. IPS often gets favorable coverage on the newspaper’s editorial page as well.

“Our district must be unusual, because media attention isn’t a problem,” says Bewley. “We currently have a reporter camped out at one of our high schools writing a regular column on the goings-on at the campus.”

Bewley’s responsiveness means reporters call her when news is slow, giving her an opportunity to provide them with more news and information about IPS.

Norm Uhl, senior media relations manager for Houston Independent School District (HISD), has had similar success by packaging and pitching stories tailored to meet the needs and interests of individual news outlets.

Instead of relying on “one-size-fits-all” press releases, Uhl looks for creative ways to hook a reporter’s interest.

For example, he generated extensive coverage of HISD’s plans for its American Recovery and Reinvestment Act funds by pitching the story as a local stimulus package.

Uhl also is using Twitter to tweak reporters’ interest in coming news events or to alert them to pending announcements.

“We have a number of reporters following us on Twitter,” says Uhl, who combines social media outreach and a subscription news service with more traditional media relations strategies such as an online newsroom, eMail messages, and phone calls.

Bewley deploys social media outlets such as Twitter and Facebook to build and maintain relationships with reporters as well as school district advocates.

“Media repays me for the access by calling to let me know when things are slow and they can definitely get my info on air or in the paper,” says Bewley. “I don’t think they’re making that offer to many other districts in Indy.”

While giving reporters more access to district information and officials can result in better and more frequent coverage, don’t expect reporters to serve as the district’s public relations agents.

“Brookings is correct that ‘…communication with reporters involves a mix of cooperative and adversarial moments’ and that ‘more informed coverage will not always be positive,'” says Jeffery Arnett, chief communications officer for Barrington 220 Community Unit School District, which is located about 35 miles northwest of Chicago.

Arnett says that educators and school board members sometimes have difficulty dealing with negative news.

“The doors that open wide when a positive story occurs should stay open when something bad happens,” says Arnett. “Schools, like reporters, must acknowledge all sides of an issue, no matter how uncomfortable the outcome. This is the essence of a transparent relationship.”

While the Brookings study takes reporters to task, Arnett says that school and district leaders need to shoulder some responsibility as well.

Administrators don’t always appreciate the inconvenience or importance of working with a news outlet they view as untrustworthy or intrusive, according to Arnett. As a result, they erect barriers to keep reporters out of schools and district offices.

“The issue is not necessarily that reporters are disinclined to tell the story of public education,” says Arnett. “Instead, educators must find new and creative media relations strategies that help reporters navigate the bureaucratic intricacies to tell a story everyone needs to hear.”

In addition to a proactive media relations strategy, Barrington 220 uses an electronic newsletter as well as student-hosted podcasts, blogs, and a video magazine to tell its story.

The district doesn’t shy away from tough topics. In a special edition of the Barrington 220 Podcast Network, Superintendent Tom Leonard talks about recent suicides of Barrington High School students and how the district is responding to the tragedies.

Students, parents, and community members are encouraged to add their voices to the “conversation” by posting blog comments or eMailing icare@cusd220.org.

Tackling tough issues, being proactive, and getting students involved align well with the Brookings Institution’s recommendations for improving public understanding of the nation’s public schools.

By helping set the agenda and define the problems, educators, students, and public officials can help drive news coverage–and a more productive search for educational solutions.

Award-winning eSchool News columnist Nora Carr is the chief of staff for North Carolina’s Guilford County Schools.

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