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Why journalists hate to write about education

Also, children make terrible sources.
Also, children make terrible sources.
Libby Nelson is Vox's policy editor, leading coverage of how government action and inaction shape American life. Libby has more than a decade of policy journalism experience, including at Inside Higher Ed and Politico. She joined Vox in 2014.

Kevin Carey, director of the education policy program at the New America Foundation and an education journalist himself, wrote an interesting Twitter essay this morning about why journalists mostly don't like to cover education. The whole thing is here, but these are the main points:

Carey argues that most journalists avoid education writing because it's complex and incremental, lacking the immediate drama and conflict of reporting on politics or foreign affairs or business. There aren't clear heroes or villains; the real issue — learning — is difficult to portray. (That's why many of the best education stories are reported out over an entire school year and written afterward.)

This is undeniably true, but I don't think it explains everything.

Education has a few strikes against it. The bread-and-butter of education reporting is still covering local schools, a starter assignment that ambitious journalists often want to escape. Education, like other policy issues, can feature a forest of impenetrable jargon that's difficult for newcomers to pick up. And most journalists want to write about power — they chronicle the clashes of powerful entities, or hold the powerful accountable on behalf of the powerless, or just rub elbows with power players. Education isn't a field filled with the traditionally powerful.

Education reporting is a pink ghetto

Those are symptoms, though, not causes. If journalists thought education was as important as many readers do, it would be a prestige beat to rival City Hall. If school superintendents and state officials were covered like titans of industry, they'd seem powerful enough to be interesting and potentially malevolent enough to be worth holding to account.

But there are other factors at play here, too. Writing about K-12 education still usually means writing about, and for, women. Carey generously says "people" here, but he could just as easily say "mothers":

The traditional audience for education reporting is moms. And moms aren't usually considered a prestige audience.

Maybe as a result, education reporting features far more work by women than other areas of politics and policy. The Women's Media Center studied bylines at the 20 most widely read and viewed news outlets in the US in late 2013. They found that women contributed 36 percent of all coverage. They came close to having equal numbers of bylines in only a few areas: health, "lifestyle," culture — and education. (The study doesn't look at smaller newspapers, but my impression from years of reading local education coverage is that the gender gap is even more pronounced there. Interestingly, it barely exists in higher education coverage.)

In other words, education is as close as "hard news" journalism gets to a pink ghetto. Education news is the policy equivalent of the women's pages. And research has found that jobs held by women are often less valued than those held by men. This is as true in newsrooms as it is in health care, where nurses are mostly women, or in education itself, where teachers are mostly women but higher-up officials tend to be men.

Education isn't at the center of the national conversation

Even less prestigious beats can blow up if they're at the center of a national policy debate. There's nothing particularly glamorous about covering health care, which is as impenetrable and incremental as education. Then health-care reform spent years at the center of political debate, and suddenly journalists were clamoring to cover it.

Education policy is still primarily made on the state and local levels. The federal government simply has much less power over education than it does over health care or taxes. So education doesn't obsess Washington for months on end in the way those policies routinely do.

There are exceptions to this, of course. Congress passed No Child Left Behind in 2001, but they haven't reauthorized it since then. In recent years, the education reform movement has created some national efforts, such as the Common Core standards and the growth of charter schools, but even those are implemented on the state and local level. If became the locus for repeated national fights, a wave of education journalism would probably follow. But given the support among the American public for local control of schools, it's likely to remain a local issue that moms care about the most — and, sadly, that's a recipe for many journalists not wanting to cover it.

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