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How schools can get better media coverage in the digital news ecosystem

School leaders must learn how to navigate the new digital news ecosystem, Brookings researchers say.

According to a new study by the Brookings Institution, Americans want more news coverage of their public schools. But to improve the media’s coverage of public education, school leaders must learn how to navigate the new digital news ecosystem.

Not surprisingly, given the federal policy shift in favor of performance pay for teachers, Americans say they want more information from the media about teacher effectiveness and student achievement.

The media’s obsession with school crime and violence—currently at historic lows—also shows its power to shape public opinion about public education: According to the Brookings study, Americans want to see more news stories about school crime and violence, as well as more information about teaching and learning, finances, and school reform.

School leaders must learn how to navigate the new digital news ecosystem, Brookings researchers say. New technologies are lowering news production costs while expanding communication channels through the internet, social media, blogs, eReaders, texting, and smart phones.

“The new ecosystem has clear strengths, including immediacy, interactivity, and diversity,” according to Brookings’ executive summary. “But these virtues must be linked effectively to the delivery of in-depth and substantive reporting.”

While some might view television or internet news coverage and “in-depth, substantive reporting” as an oxymoron, getting better media coverage is possible. Here’s how:

Create an in-house news gathering operation.

To pitch good stories to reporters, school officials need a system for identifying potential news opportunities. Internal key communicator programs are a good place to start.

These programs recruit employee volunteers to serve as news reporters for their schools or departments, and then feed story ideas and other information to the principal or district communications office.
Communication is two way. Key communicators also ask questions about new initiatives and let officials known when issues might be building.

Package complete stories.

When it comes to media coverage, educators tend to get most frustrated with the quality—or lack thereof—of local television news.

To combat “if it bleeds, it leads,” educators need to offer complete news story packages, including sound (sound-bite savvy interviews) and pictures (activities and interesting backdrops).

Television is a visual media; to snag better coverage, offer at least three to four different video options.

Create a fire hose of good news.

To combat media sensationalism, which will always find negative news more compelling, school officials need to create an overwhelming fire hose of well-researched and well-written good news stories.

TV responds best when offered the total package—solid interviews, good visuals, interesting facts, and human-interest angles tied to other news or facts.

Link local stories to national trends, issues, and research.

Localizing national news is a time-honored news media tradition. Educators can get more and better coverage of their work by tying what they do to newly issues studies, policies, and events.

For example, next time a state or national school crime and violence report comes out, use it as a news hook to showcase local safety efforts, such as decreases in suspensions or office referrals—or allow the news media to cover an emergency response drill.

Deploy digital media.

If local news outlets turn down a story, enlist journalism or career education students to cover it instead. Then post it on Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, LinkedIn, and other social media outlets.

Social media offers a growing number of venues for showcasing student, staff, school, and district success. And, by producing 60-second news stories, student and parent testimonials, and short-format videos, students develop marketable skills.

Digital media has the added benefit of being easy to share via eMail, encouraging viral marketing of school or district good news.

Make sure the internet and social media are included on student video/photo release forms before posting.

Build relationships with reporters.

Getting to know reporters and editors before they show up at the schoolhouse door during a crisis is always a good idea.

Each reporter has different interests, goals, deadlines, preferences, and quirks. Knowing what those are will help educators reach out more effectively by targeting story pitches to meet reporters’ and news outlets’ needs.

Given the cutbacks in most newsrooms, fewer outlets have dedicated education reporters. This means principals and district communicators will need to build relationships with a number of general assignment reporters, as well as producers and assignment editors.

Get there first.

To get better news coverage, school leaders need to make themselves available during good times—and bad.

Whether cynical by nature, training, or experience, reporters’ radars go up quickly when school officials run for cover during crises or when the news is bad.

One of the keys to getting better news coverage is speaking to reporters and sharing information with the public in transparent fashion.

Create media opportunities.

Media opportunities can be created as well as shared. Sometimes, all that is needed is an additional twist or two to make a school concert or district event more newsworthy.

For example, while the annual food drive probably isn’t newsworthy, tying that drive to increasing hunger in local public schools and the negative impact of hunger on learning probably is.

These facts—combined with a class project to identify community food desserts, and a student’s plan to grow an urban garden in her neighborhood—increase the news value considerably.

Telling stories through people, sound bites (words), and pictures, and weaving more compelling narratives, will improve media coverage and public understanding of public schools.

Resources: “Americans Want More Coverage of Teacher Performance and Student Achievement,” Darrell M. West, Grover J. “Russ” Whitehurst, and E.J. Dionne, Jr., The Brookings Institute, March 29, 2011.

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

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