Volume 26, Number 5
The Media Savvy Educator
How to work with the press to educate the public about schools
Former Washington Post reporter Linda Perlstein has written about education for 12 years. As the public editor for the Education Writers Association (EWA), she now advises journalists assigned to cover schools for local and national media outlets, and writes “The Educated Reporter” blog for EWA. She is the author of Tested: One American School Struggles to Make the Grade and Not Much Just Chillin’: The Hidden Lives of Middle Schoolers. Perlstein talked to Harvard Education Letter editor Nancy Walser about how educators can work with journalists to improve coverage of schools.
Educators often ask, “Why is there so little coverage of good news about schools?” How do you answer that question?
Well, it depends on what you mean by “good news.” If the test scores go up, a reporter is going to write about that and try to explain why. If they go down, a reporter will write about that. There are some reporters and some papers that are always going to cover a conflict, if it’s there. I’m not going to defend that attitude, but at the same time I don’t think they should be covering every cheery event. Most people don’t want to read a story about a staged event like Read Across America day. That’s boring. If that’s what you see as a “positive” story—well, it’s just not that interesting to most readers that a bunch of people from the community came to school to read Dr. Seuss.
But a story about different reading challenges—why it’s so hard to get a child to read, or about the research that shows the value of giving kids books over the summer—those kinds of issues can make for engaging journalism that brings [the reader] into people’s brains and lives, tells you something new or surprising or frustrating. This is one reason giving reporters access to schools and classrooms is so important, because when reporters see something that works, they are going to want to write about it.
How helpful are press releases in getting a reporter’s attention?
Press releases get tossed in the trash. If you have a relationship with the reporters who cover your area, pick up the phone and say, “We’re trying this new math program, and I’m calling because I know you are interested in this topic.” What’s gold to journalists is actual conversations with actual educators. That’s it. Literally, that’s it. They want to know about a policy coming into play, what’s working and what’s not working in the classroom. The main problem is there’s such a culture of fear in education that no one is saying anything.
What do you mean by a “culture of fear” in education?
The prime directive from principals and administrators in schools and in education right now is to be a “team player,” but oftentimes “team player” is taken to mean, “Do what we say and don’t question it.” I hear about this from both journalists and educators. Administrators in schools and at the district level want to control what is written about their schools, and educators have told me that they worry about getting in trouble for speaking freely. Anybody on the education beat would tell you that the problem of access [to schools and staff] is getting worse. There are many school systems that won’t let a reporter sit in a classroom without an escort from the central office, who will be there when the reporter is talking to the principal. Other school systems have rules that only the PIO [Public Information Officer] can talk to reporters.
As an administrator, I would push back on that rule—or build an off-the-record relationship with a reporter. Every school system knows which reporter can be trusted and which can’t: who gets things right, works to get all sides of the story, and keeps confidences. If you have someone like that covering your school system, stay in touch with them. Let them know enough of what happens behind the scenes so that they can really understand the context, the history, the potential of a policy at hand.
What I always tell reporters is that they should be visiting one school a week for no other reason than to meet people and see what’s going on. They should call up a principal and say, “I want to come and see what’s going on because I’ve never been to a school in your neighborhood.” They should tell the principal they aren’t writing a story and stick to that. Let the principal show the reporter around, chat for a while, and visit a couple classrooms. So the next time when something does happen, when there’s a crisis or a school board issue that the reporter is trying to understand and wants your thoughts on background, you have this relationship. That’s always going to help both of you.
What does it mean to speak “off the record” and “on background” to a reporter?
They often mean different things to different people. So I think the important thing to do is define the terms with the reporter at the beginning of a conversation. Are you okay with them using the information you’re giving, as long as they don’t use your name? If they just call you “a principal”? Or do you want to give the reporter information to help her or him understand something, but you don’t want it put into print? Talk about this together. The reporter might come back later and say, “This one thing you said, I would really like to use this for my story. I think it would really help paint the picture. Are you sure you can’t say that for attribution?” And then you may want to reconsider, because the public can’t help solve problems and put pressure in the right places if they don’t really understand what’s going on.
What are some common mistakes administrators make when dealing with the media?
The biggest thing is not being honest. Principals and superintendents often tell me the media gets it wrong—that they don’t tell the whole story—and I say, “When was the last time you were truly honest with a journalist? Did you give them the whole story?” Too many administrators work hard to spin a message rather than explain reality. Talk about your challenges rather than pretending they don’t exist. Why wouldn’t you want a reporter to understand, for example, the challenges of absenteeism? You can say, “Here’s what we’ve been doing to try to get kids in school every day, but we had 10 percent of our students absent 20 days last semester and we aren’t sure what we are going to do about it.” These are not excuses, but explanations.
Shortly after Michelle Rhee began as superintendent in Washington, D.C., a Post reporter wrote a series about a student named Jonathan (“Will Jonathan Graduate?” Washington Post, November 10, 2007). There were problems with the principal, the teacher, the kid, and the parents. By allowing the reporter enough access so she could see the whole picture, it was much clearer to the public that all of these factors were in play. If I were an administrator, I would want people to understand that. Presuming that access will necessarily hurt you is a mistake. Not letting your employees talk to the media is also a mistake. Teachers know better than anyone else what’s working and what’s not. If they aren’t part of the conversation, who does that benefit?
What kind of background information should administrators have ready to provide to reporters?
Some education reporters have a lot of knowledge and some have very little. This has become more and more of a problem as jobs are cut and reporters are expected to take on more responsibilities in the same amount of time. Someone who once covered just schools may also have to cover the courts or some other beat as well. You can certainly say to a reporter, “How much do you know about this subject?” But as an administrator, you are busy and you don’t have to be their teacher. If they need context, tell them to call me at EWA! Still, it would be great to point out things about your school and students and teachers that can’t be learned from the data the reporter can easily get online. A reporter can look and see that 30 percent of your students are Latino, but may not know that there were 3 percent only a couple years before, or that there has been a big turnover in staff and what was recently a mostly veteran staff is now very inexperienced. Those are things that a reporter may not necessarily pick up by looking at the state report card.
What should an educator do if he/she thinks a reporter is biased or has reported something unfairly or inaccurately?
The first thing to do is to get the perspective of other people because I think it’s easy to be oversensitive. Before you jump on the phone, have a conversation with not just yourself, but with others you trust. Then if it still seems unfair, contact the reporter and talk it out. It doesn’t need to be antagonistic. Just say, for example, “I’m wondering why you wrote this, when this was the full thing I said.” You can also tell your side of the story by writing an op-ed or a letter to the editor. If you feel like a reporter has a consistent pattern of inaccuracies, though, don’t be afraid to let [him or her] know you are going to talk to the editor—and do so.
What kinds of stories does the public want to read about education—that they aren’t getting enough of now?
I think people want to know what’s going on in classrooms, and they are getting almost none of that. They don’t know how reading is taught. They don’t know how math is taught. They don’t have a great deal of detail about how their children’s days are spent, intellectually. They don’t understand why one teacher has such trouble managing a class full of unruly kids while another teacher does not. They don’t understand what it looks like for special education students to be taught alongside other children, or for a teacher to “differentiate” instruction. Actually, a lot of teachers don’t understand what that looks like either—now that would be a good story.