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The Effect of Media Coverage On Education

Posted: April 9, 2008

by Jill Anderson

Despite often favoring coverage of the Iraq War or the economy, today’s media remains a powerful voice for the American public on the issue of education. As part of last week’s Askwith Forum, The Media: Driving Education Policy?, Dean Kathleen McCartney invited New York Times columnist Bob Herbert and Boston Globe columnist Derrick Jackson to discuss how the media’s coverage impacts American education today.

“Education is greatly influenced by media, especially columnists,” McCartney said, noting the media’s prominent voice on No Child Left Behind, athletics, and the achievement gap.

Despite more and more people understanding education’s importance in maintaining a middle class lifestyle, Herbert admitted that, in the media today, “education doesn’t get the attention it deserves.” Yet, the columnists noted, the lack of coverage often reflects larger problems in America today: the unwillingness of people to sacrifice to help fund schools and many Americans’ lack of concern regarding the disparities in the lives of others.  

“Newspapers wax eloquently about education, but when push comes to shove [in the public’s eyes]…if [funding education] involves raising the taxes, forget about it,” Jackson said.

Calling this one of the “most selfish” periods in America’s history, Jackson explained that even in the time following the 9/11 attacks, many Americans were still living in their large homes, spending money, and globally unaware. The disparities among Americans are still considerably large, which impedes media coverage.

“We get a skewed view of how the country is doing from the politicians and media,” Herbert said. “The U.S. is not doing as well as most Americans think we are doing…. I think we are going backward rather than forward.”

In order to have a 21st century education system, America needs to fund education, but part of the problem is that most people “do not feel kids are deserving of the resources,” Herbert said, for which he blames, in part, media coverage.

A common problem with media, according to Herbert, is their tendency to lead with stories the public wants to read, rather than what it needs to know. The press focuses too much on personalities and process, rather than what’s happening and why it’s happening, Herbert said. This likely contributes to the creation and permeation of educational stereotypes in the U.S. The media seems to favor writing about problematic school systems rather than inspirational stories of school and student success. The focus on educational struggles and failures only serves to compound education problems and confirm existing stereotypes.  

The media’s coverage tends to confirm American’s views that there is no need to put money into education, Jackson said, especially in the communities where larger gaps exist among students.

When asked whether there was a way to appeal to American’s pride and change the state of education today, Herbert reminded the audience that, although the future of education and the state of the community appears grim right now, nothing is as bad as it seems, and that we “still have an opportunity to work hard to turn around things.” Herbert urged Americans to get involved. “It doesn’t matter what you do as long as you do something constructive.”

One recent positive, Jackson said, was the public’s response in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, which demonstrated that many Americans still care and can be emotionally touched by areas in need. This provides some hope regarding the future of education in this country. After all, Jackson said, “Education is the defining issue of whether society cares about each other as a whole.” Part of the job of the community, he said, is making sure that all students are accepted and that the media, having the influence it does, should reflect that as well.


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