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October 1, 1998
Vol. 56
No. 2

Communicating with the So-Called Monster Media

The public interest is best served when articulate, credible school leaders and spokespersons work closely with responsible, knowledgeable journalists.

Talk radio can ruin your day before it starts. Anyone responsible for communicating news about a school or school district will recognize some elements of the following scenario:
6:00 a.m.—You open one eye to the sound of an announcer's voice proclaiming, "Police have charged two Hilltown High School students with assaulting another youth with a weapon during a gang fight yesterday." By the time you open your other eye, the voice has moved on to news of a traffic accident without a further explanation of the incident involving your students. No surprise. Early morning radio news is routinely snatched from the morning headlines, which are cryptic attention grabbers that often distort a story.
6:10 a.m.—You call the newsroom to check the source of the story. It is the local paper, whose reporter called you at 5:30 the previous afternoon—a reporter who usually gets the details correct. You ask the radio newscaster to skim down into the story he has been reading. Sure enough, the details are correct: The boys were involved in a relatively minor fight (no serious injuries) in the parking lot of a local shopping mall with a group (not a gang) of other teenagers; the "weapon" was a baseball bat that one boy was putting into his car when the fight started. The incident had no direct connection to the school, which was not even mentioned in the police report. The newscaster agrees that the first early morning version might have been misleading.
6:20 a.m.—The superintendent calls: "Did I miss something yesterday? Did we have a gang-related incident?" No. And no. I'm working on it.
6:30 a.m.—The second newscast of the morning does not lead with the name of the school (although it is still mentioned at the end) and makes clear that the fight did not occur at school. That's what you wanted. However, this subtle change will not satisfy principals, teachers, and parents who say that when kids get in trouble in the community on nights or weekends, naming their school is irrelevant and damages the school's image. Casual listeners, those with little knowledge of local schools or interest in the details, simply equate the school name with violence. And, consciously or unconsciously, they relate the local incident to the serious episodes of school violence that have filled the national news media.
7:25 a.m.—The principal of Hilltown High School calls. She didn't hear either broadcast but has heard different versions from teachers at the school and from parents who have called. You give her the facts and hope that it isn't such a slow news day that TV cameras show up outside the school. If they do, you agree to run interference for her because she has a busy schedule. You also hope that the incident is too insignificant to have been picked up by a news wire service because correcting wire stories is like retrieving the proverbial feathers in the wind.
8:00 a.m.—You start your day at the office by faxing the police report to the principal of Hilltown High School so that the school will have accurate, firsthand information.
Before the day is over, you have talked to the police and the press about a middle school student caught distributing drugs, an employee who showed up for work drunk (an adult who saw the person arrive at school chose to make an anonymous call to a reporter instead of talking to a school administrator), a minor bus accident, and a bomb threat (an anonymous student called the press) that caused the vacating of one high school. You have also helped an elementary principal craft a letter to the community about a stranger who approached a 3rd grader on her way to school, making sure that the police verify the details before the letter goes home at the end of the day. These incidents will get varying degrees of attention in the local media. Why? Because they happened, they are news, and reporters get paid for reporting news.
Educators who are aggravated by this type of routine reporting are likely to be too idealistic (People connected with schools never do bad or dumb things), too defensive (If we admit that people connected with schools sometimes do bad or dumb things, the reputation of the school is ruined), too naive about the public's interest in schools (This only concerns the school; it isn't news), or too paranoid about the press (Reporters are only interested in negative news that makes schools look bad).
None of these attitudes fosters the effective, open communication that is essential for educators who hope to increase the public's understanding and support of public schools. However, reporters who write stories only on the basis of police reports and anonymous phone tips are writing on the periphery of education; they are not really education reporters. The public interest is best served when articulate, credible school leaders and spokespersons work closely with responsible, knowledgeable journalists. Schools cannot forge productive relationships by disdaining or stonewalling the media. Schools are public institutions operating in the public arena, and the press comes with the territory in a democracy.

Blaming Is Therapeutic, but Not Productive

Apparently, too few educators and journalists have the kind of mutually respectful professional relationship that enables both to do a better job of informing the public about substantive education issues. A recent study conducted by the Public Agenda Foundation for the Education Writers Association (1997) documents educators' attitudes toward the press. The report compares the responses of educators, the press, and the public.
Educators' attitudes are consistently more negative toward the press than those of the general public. David Berliner and Bruce Biddle cite certain statistics from the study to support their contention that the press is biased against public schools (Berliner & Biddle, 1998). What they fail to point out, however, are the startling discrepancies between the views of educators and the views of the general public.
Although 77 percent of the public and 67 percent of the press think that news organizations generally do a good job of covering education issues and events, only 40 percent of educators agree. On a similar question, 69 percent of the public and 63 percent of the press think that news organizations generally do a good job of explaining important education issues; only 36 percent of educators agree. The statement Educators often unfairly blame the press for negative publicity when reporters are simply reporting the news elicited a predictable 93 percent agreement from reporters, a meager 33 percent from educators, and a relatively high 79 percent from the public.
The chasm between the perspectives of educators and those of reporters is seen again in their responses to the key statement Much of the decline in public confidence in public schools is the result of negative press coverage. The statement earned 21 percent agreement by the press and 76 percent by educators; the public is in the middle with 55 percent. The public reveals a healthy skepticism, but not the negativism of educators. Are educators out of touch with the public's perceptions and priorities? How justified are these attitudes toward the press?

Dispelling a Legacy of Distrust and Defensiveness

These findings confirm my own experiences, not only with my professional colleagues but also with virtually everyone in our school community who did not like something they read in the newspaper, heard on the radio, or saw on television. Because I was responsible for media relations in a large metropolitan-area school system, my day never passed without phone calls from people who complained about stories or vented their frustrations about the media. Often the complaints were specific, justified, and fixable; often they were not. Often they were simply "kill the messenger" reactions to controversial topics or to critical, quoted comments. As a passionate advocate for public education, I was sometimes surprised to find myself sounding like an apologist for the press!
After years of arbitrating disagreements and trying to reconcile different perceptions, I am convinced that most educators and journalists have enough common sense and goodwill to work together productively—not easily or without some tension, but productively. For school leaders, that means working closely with the media to improve their access to information, their knowledge and understanding of education issues, and the accuracy of their stories.
School leaders should know the individuals and news organizations that cover their schools and take seriously the responsibility of educating the press—reporters, editors, news directors, program managers, columnists, and commentators. It is impossible to build a good working relationship with a fictional monster called "The Media." Print and electronic media bring different approaches to the same story. National and community newspapers have different interests; dailies and weeklies have different deadline pressures. School leaders should expect to encounter crusty editorial writers with entrenched ideas, freewheeling columnists with known biases, green reporters with little experience, outrageously creative headline writers, and a host of competent, hardworking editors and reporters who are trying to do a good job.
Blanket judgements of The Media based on preconditioned attitudes make no sense. They get in the way of intelligent, individual relationships based on personal experience. Some of those experiences, of course, will be negative; irritating and ignorant people are found in every profession. But educators who invest professional time and energy working with the press to improve the public's grasp of education issues are likely to be gratified more often than aggravated.

The Media's Perspective and Pursuit of Answers

A significant initiative to improve media coverage of education was the creation in 1997 of the Hechinger Institute on Education and the Media at Teachers College, Columbia University. Among the Institute's 1997 partners were the Education Writers Association, the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, and the National Conference of Editorial Writers. Directed by Gene Maeroff, former national education writer for the New York Times, the Institute involves distinguished educators in conducting seminars that provide journalists with the grounding and depth in subject matter that cannot help but bolster the quality of education coverage. This outcome serves not only the news organizations that are represented at the seminars but the schools, colleges, and other educational agencies across the country that want to see coverage be as good as possible. (Maeroff, 1998a, p. 1)
The mission of the Institute speaks to the seriousness with which professional journalists view education coverage. The mere existence of such an institute, supported by prestigious individuals and organizations, testifies to the continuing U.S. interest in education issues.
The concept of engaging professional journalists and educators with one another in seminars is as important for educators as it is for journalists; few educators have any training for, or experience with, working with the media. Throughout years of teaching new and aspiring school administrators, I have found nothing that intrigues them more than learning to work with the media. The most valuable learning occurs when my class sessions include reporters—individually and on panels—who talk about their professional responsibilities and needs. The lively question-and-answer period that inevitably ensues enlightens both educators and journalists. Today's administrators recognize that they work in the hot glare of a public spotlight; this role demands a new sensitivity to the related roles of a free public education and a free press in a democracy.

Education Coverage: Too Hard, Too Soft, or Just Right?

The first book published in conjunction with the Hechinger Institute contains three essays that express very different opinions about the media's coverage of education. In their essay, Berliner and Biddle repeat their earlier conspiracy accusations, saying that "newspapers have become a natural ally of those who believe that public education has failed" (Berliner & Biddle, 1998, p. 27). After providing supporting examples they conclude: By continuing the unfair, unremitting negative characterization of the nation's schools and youth, by searching for the blood and too often avoiding the more reasonable interpretations that are possible, and by failing to describe the magnificent achievements that also characterize public education, the nation's free press may ultimately become less free. (Berliner & Biddle, 1998, p. 44) They obviously believe that media coverage of education has been too hard.
Denis Doyle, an outspoken school critic, believes that press coverage has been too soft. He argues that inadequate press coverage has failed to penetrate the resistance of the education bureaucracy and to expose the serious problems with U.S. education. He suggests that this lack of aggressive reporting is partially due to the reality that "almost without exception, the education beat is one step up from obituaries" (Doyle, 1998, p. 51).
In years of working with reporters, I have had tough tangles and serious disagreements, but I have rarely met journalists as bloodthirsty and conspiratorial as those described by Berliner and Biddle or as ignorant as those described by Doyle.
Doyle's view of the education beat is not shared by me or by Aleta Watson of the San Jose Mercury News, who says that "education has become one of the most visible beats at the Mercury News, and the work of those who cover education is often on page 1" (Watson, 1998, p. 14). Speaking from a journalist's perspective, she rejects the charges of bias and conspiracy, but concedes that complex stories are often oversimplified because of limited time and space. She disputes the predominance of negative stories, but recognizes that reporters and educators may not agree on what is negative: If a story raises critical issues about schools that may lead to the improvement of education for children, most reporters would consider it a positive piece. (Watson, 1998, p. 19)
Watson's view is closer to the realities of my own experience with education reporters. They need more candid cooperation than they sometimes get from schools. They also have a professional responsibility to cover education well because education is at the top of the public agenda in most polls.

Public Polls and Perspectives

Deborah Wadsworth (1998), executive director of Public Agenda, draws on her organization's extensive archives of public opinion studies and surveys to answer the question, Do media shape public perceptions of U.S. schools? She finds that the negative images that have prevailed in the public mind for more than a decade—concerns about discipline, drugs, violence, and the basics—are mentioned as often by people closely involved with schools as they are by people whose impressions come primarily from the media. David Mathews, president of the Kettering Foundation, agrees. Speaking of the public's negative perceptions, he says: Although media hype and hearsay are often blamed for this perception, the people we talked to based their conclusions on personal experience or the experience of family members and close friends." (Mathews, 1996, p. 3)
Despite similar findings about the public's top concerns, the 1997 Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup poll draws a different conclusion about the role of the media. Over the years of the poll, local schools have been graded higher than the nation's schools, leading to the generalization that people who are most familiar with schools are the least critical (the least, but still critical). An inference in the 1997 poll is that the low grades given the nation's public schools are primarily media-induced. Whereas people learn firsthand about their children's schools, they learn about the nation's schools primarily from the media. (Rose, Gallup, & Elam, 1997, p. 47) Unfortunately, this inference consoles people who believe that most criticism of schools springs from ignorance or who are in denial about the need to improve public education in the United States.
Trends in the Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup survey support Mathew's views. In just four years, opposition to allowing students to attend nonpublic schools at public expense has declined from 74 percent in 1993 to 54 percent in 1997. When the question was reworded to "public expense" instead of "government expense," the responses were even, with 48 percent in favor and 48 percent opposed. Letting parents choose the school their children attend no longer sounds like heresy to many U.S. parents. Still, most respondents (71 percent) preferred improving the current system to seeking an alternative.
Mathews poses a troubling question with the title of his book Is There a Public for Public Schools? On the basis of more than a decade of research about the public's relationship with public education, he concludes that the historic compact the United States has with its schools is eroding because educators' efforts to engage the public in reform have been superficial. Schools have assumed that the public can be rallied through the standard means of publicity and marketing: the buyers are out there waiting to be told the benefits of the product. Any trouble between school officials and the public is simply a failure to communicate. (Mathews, 1996, p. 17)
He believes that people feel manipulated rather than empowered and have become cynical about the process of public involvement. Too often, "when educators talk about public engagement or community involvement, all they mean is using more effective ways of telling people what's good for them" (Mathews, 1996, p. 5). These perceptions should not be dismissed as media-generated.
However the media have contributed to the public's growing concerns about education (and they surely have!), they did not create them. Blaming the press diverts energy from the real education challenges and deprives us of our best link to the public. Gene Maeroff suggests a direction that could benefit both journalists and educators: The education establishment must show more respect for the public's right to know and a greater understanding of the media's role as an intermediary between the world of education and the public. (Maeroff, 1998b, p. 223)
No other communication channel available to educators can reach the broad audience called "the public" as effectively as the media.

Berliner, D. C., & Biddle, B. J. (1998). The lamentable alliance between the media and school critics. In G. Maeroff (Ed.), Imaging education: The media and schools in America(pp. 26–45). New York: Teachers College Press.

Doyle, D. P. (1998). Education and the press: Ignorance is bliss. In G. Maeroff (Ed.), Imaging education: The media and schools in America(pp. 46–56). New York: Teachers College Press.

Education Writers Association. (1997). Good news, bad news: What people really think about the education press. New York: Public Agenda.

Maeroff, G. (1998a). The Hechinger Institute on education and the media annual review. New York: Teachers College Press.

Maeroff, G. (Ed.). (1998b). Imaging education: The media and schools in America. New York: Teachers College Press.

Mathews, D. (1996). Is there a public for public schools?Dayton, OH: Kettering Foundation Press.

Rose, L. C., Gallup, A., & Elam, S. (1997). The 29th annual Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup poll of the public's attitudes toward the public schools. Phi Delta Kappan 79(1), 41–56.

Wadsworth, D. (1998). Do media shape public perceptions of America's schools? In G. Maeroff (Ed.), Imaging education: The media and schools in America(pp. 59–68). New York: Teachers College Press.

Watson, A. (1998). The newspaper's responsibility. In G. Maeroff (Ed.), Imaging education: The media and schools in America(pp. 13–25). New York: Teachers College Press.

Dolores Boylston Bohen has been a contributor to Educational Leadership.

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