Every single newsroom, whether that of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, the New York Times or your local radio or television news or a small weekly newspaper, operates in the same way.
Imagine that it is a little before nine in the morning. A reporter, let’s call him Steve, is sitting in the newsroom. Right now, Steve is scouring newspapers, reading stories from the Associated Press, and looking through his email. He needs a story idea. He is desperate to find a story.
What kind of story is Steve looking for?
Speaking very generally, the types of education news stories Steve will cover include:
(1) The spot news story.
Spot news is just a regular news story. “Anytown School Board Approves Referendum,” is an example. Steve normally learns about these types of stories through a news release or by attending a meeting.
(2) The profile piece.
A profile piece is generally a positive piece about something or someone that is considered newsworthy. For example, an article on the creation of a new and innovative technology curriculum is a profile piece.
Steve also usually learns about these stories through a news release or even better, through someone from a school who informs or “pitches” him on a story.
(3) The localized piece.
Steve loves these stories because they are easy. In fact, he keeps some of these pieces on standby in case he doesn’t have anything else to write about.
A localized piece is a national story that has been localized through local commentary and local information. As an example, a few years ago there were several big national stories on single-sex schools. This resulted in a lot of reporting on local single-sex schools, with to the goal of localizing these national stories.
(4) The “Oh $#!&” story.
The “Oh $#!&” story is a negative story. It starts negatively and ends negatively. Most “Oh $#!&” stories on TV news are done by an “investigative reporter.” They can also be found in your local newspaper.
These are often bad stories, and by this I do not just mean that they are negative, but also that they are often poorly–researched, covering only part of the real issue. Not only are these stories bad, but they tend to spread like wildfire, from newspaper to TV news, and from station to station. They also tend to “bounce” from day to day, becoming a long-term problem.
These stories generally start as tips from disgruntled residents.
Steve loves these stories, so he regularly scans his email for people with tips. If Steve works for a daily newspaper he receives a lot of tips. Most of these tips don’t pan out but, and this is important to remember, Steve, like every other reporter, feels an obligation to follow up on the tips he receives.
Later in the morning, Steve will meet with his editor. Steve’s editor, Anne, like all editors, is focused on getting enough copy together to make an edition of tomorrow morning’s paper, or tonight’s news, possible.
Like Steve, Anne is constantly looking through the news for story ideas. What makes her very happy is when Steve comes to her with story ideas. If he doesn’t have any, or if Anne wants something covered, she will assign him a story length and a deadline.
The criteria both Anne and Steve use to determine whether to pursue a story is whether it is newsworthy or not. They ask themselves the same question again and again, “Is this important?”
All too often the decision to pursue a story is made in haste and without all of the facts. Because editors are not experts on the subject matter they cover, the answer to whether something is important or not is often a shot in the dark.
Anne, in desperation, goes through her email inbox to look for story ideas. It is already 9:30 and she needs Steve to file a story today. As her blood pressure increases, she finds one, a news release distributed by an organization based out of Pennsylvania, saying that schools which use a specific curriculum are “damning their children to failure.”
“This looks like something worth pursuing,” she thinks, as she forwards the email to Steve, telling him to find out who is using this curriculum and to get her a story, fast.
Let’s stop here for a minute and learn a little more about Steve.
Like most reporters, Steve is young, just a few years out of college. Steve doesn’t know it now, but he probably won’t be at the paper long. Newspapers tend to burn out young reporters, so there is constant turnover. This is especially true of the smaller weekly newspapers.
Importantly, even though Steve covers education–and he may cover a lot of other things if he works for a weekly newspaper–he doesn’t have any specific knowledge of education, beyond his own experience. The reason Steve covers education is because his editors, knowing that he has little experience, figured that being just a year out of college, he understands it well enough.
Steve prints the release, goes back to his desk and calls…you.
Let’s pause the narrative here, and pick it up after we cover a few further points.
Firstly, not many of the people who write about education, with the exception of a very few reporters, have any knowledge of education.
The typical education reporter, like Steve, is a very new reporter, often just out of college, and covering the education beat is very time-consuming.
As a result, the vast majority of reporters, even at the larger daily newspapers, have very little specific understanding of the kinds of things that we deal with every day. The vast majority of reporters who cover education could not tell you what an educational standard is, explain the No Child Left Behind Act or what IDEA means.
Something else to consider is that the news industry has changed a lot over the years. There are far fewer people covering education and far fewer reporters in general.
This is not a good thing, because it means that fewer and fewer reporters have any real knowledge of education and educational policy.
It also means that there are a lot more mistakes in school-related stories.
Finally, it means that there are far fewer stories about education and that those that do run are overly simplistic “Oh $#!&” stories described earlier. There are very few stories about the really complicated issues that we are trying to get the public to understand.
What this means is that, in a day and age when parents and community members want more information than ever, especially good, clear information, the people and organizations providing that information are getting less and less reliable.
Let’s examine how this affects you, specifically.
Tune in tomorrow for the next post in this series.