Saving education coverage – here’s one solution that costs nothing, except trust

One-point-four percent. That is how much of their time and space leading news organizations are devoting to education coverage, according to scholars at The Brookings Institution who’ve studied how the decline in staffing at mainstream media outlets is impacting both the quantity and the quality of school news.

The Brookings study, “Invisible: 1.4 Percent Coverage for Education is Not Enough,” was released in December 2009 by a team headed by Darrell M. West, a vice president of the Washington, D.C.-based think-tank. His co-authors included Washington Post columnist and longtime political  reporter E.J. Dionne, Jr.

While there are a multitude of academics and industry professionals looking at new funding and delivery models for the media in general, Brookings is taking a lead role in specifically focusing on the need for more meaningful attention to education news, and how to generate that coverage in today’s economy.

The Brookings report identifies one under-utilized — and free — resource that may surprise those in the industry: Student journalists.

“Some school officials discourage student reporters from asking difficult questions or raising controversial issues,” says the study. “In fact, student journalism of this kind should be encouraged. Student newspapers often lead the media to important education stories.”

Indeed, students do not merely serve as sources of tips for the local media — sometimes they are the local media. At a conference on student journalism organized by the McCormick Foundation in February, the president of a suburban Chicago-area school board, Bill Dussling, told the group that the only reporter who regularly covered his district’s board meetings was from the Arlington Heights High School Jacket Journal.

If education news is to receive the thorough coverage it deserves without a windfall infusion of new funding, well-trained student journalists unquestionably must be part of the solution. And they must be allowed to deliver the news truthfully and without fear of reprisal.

Will students struggle with explaining the complexities of millage rates and bond issues, and will they sometimes commit errors? Yes, and so will salaried professionals. Fortunately for them (and for all of us), the First Amendment has “accident forgiveness.” Perfection is not required, and your coverage is not canceled for your first mistake (or your sixth).

What students unquestionably are capable of doing is gathering source documents and organizing them online — everything from school budgets to the campaign-finance disclosures of school board candidates — where they can readily be examined by the voting public. And what students are capable of doing especially well is speaking to the interests and priorities of their peers. If students are providing the coverage and asking the interview questions, then students’ perspectives will not go overlooked.

Regrettably, some school administrators openly discourage student journalists from covering school board meetings, editorializing about school board elections, or otherwise participating in the civic life of the school system about which they are uniquely knowledgeable (even though many will be old enough to vote in the next school board election). That narrow-mindedness has always had grievous costs in terms of students’ educational and civic well-being. Increasingly, it may also exact a toll on the information needs of the entire community.