In an era rife with heated talk of “fake news”, media bias, and the role reporters play in safeguarding democracy, it’s a propitious time for news coverage to be self-evidently fair-minded and trustworthy. Unfortunately, at least when it comes to education — the field we know best — that’s not been the case of late. Rather, coverage of major developments in influential outlets has been imbued with overt slant.
While it may be hard for readers or reporters to be impartial when it comes to the Russia investigation or immigration enforcement, education would seem to be one place where journalists might find it easier to clearly distinguish fact from opinion. Yet coverage has left us thinking that line has been badly blurred. To see whether we’re being unfair, we examined news coverage for two of the more significant education debates of the past few months: the tax bill provisions relating to K-12 and higher education and the pending reauthorization of the Higher Education Act (HEA).
The results were not reassuring. On the tax bill, five of the ten mainstream press stories featured a headline with an obvious slant against the Republican tax plan, while just one Journal story carried an obviously favorable headline (disconcertingly, less than half the articles carried an impartial headline). When one read a news story’s lead paragraph and framing, again, five stories were cleared negative and just one Journal story was favorable.
One Times headline, for instance, depicted the bill’s provisions as an attack on traditional public schools: “Tax Bills Could Expand Private School Benefits and Hurt Public Education.” A typical Post story opened with a paragraph on the GOP tax plan that read: “Republicans in the House rattled students, parents, and universities with the release of a sweeping tax overhaul proposal.” What’s more, the stories that tilted also featured a similar imbalance in perspectives offered — all of them devoting fewer than half as many paragraphs to the other side as to the one the story apparently favored.
Coverage of plans to reauthorize HEA has looked similar. While USA Today didn’t run any stories on HEA, all four stories in the Times and Post stories showed a clear anti-GOP tilt in their headlines and their framing. No stories, including those in the Journal, featured a favorable slant. A representative Post headline read, “House GOP Higher Ed Bill Moves Ahead, Despite Cries to Slow Down.” One Times article’s opening paragraph authoritatively termed the HEA reauthorization an “effort seeking to dismantle landmark Obama administration regulations designed to protect students from predatory for-profit colleges and to repay the loans of those who earned worthless degrees from scam universities.”
Notably, the trade press coverage was significantly more even-handed than was the mainstream press’s. Of 24 stories on either the tax bill or HEA, just seven showed evidence of a clear tilt — with six leaning against Republican proposals and one in favor. This 30 percent tilt rate is hardly ideal, but is far less disconcerting than that of the major national newspapers. And most of the tilt in the trade press is due to The Chronicle of Higher Education, which displayed a noticeable anti-GOP slant in nearly half of its stories, while the other trade outlets showed a tilt in only about 10 to 15 percent of their coverage.
Now, look. If one thinks, à la Paul Krugman, that “facts have a well-known liberal bias,” and presumes it a foregone conclusion that conservative proposals are frequently indefensible, then we suppose one might conclude that the mainstream media’s tilt represents responsible news coverage. In that case, coverage imbued with a normative tilt, and which consistently leans in one direction is unexceptional — even admirable. If, on the other hand, one believes these are thorny issues which feature legitimate arguments on both sides, then this kind of reporting is irresponsible, a recipe for undermining reasoned discourse, and a guarantee that conservatives will see the mainstream media as slanted and unreliable.
This isn’t about President TrumpDonald TrumpGOP grapples with chaotic Senate primary in Pennsylvania Trump social media startup receives commitment of billion from unidentified 'diverse group' of investors Iran thinks it has the upper hand in Vienna — here's why it doesn't MORE or his tweets. This is about how responsible media cover serious policy debates. If professional journalists can’t manage to do that when it comes to education, it’s hard to imagine how they can do it on the most important and polarizing issues of the day.
Frederick M. Hess is director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute and the author of “Letters to a Young Education Reformer.” Brendan Bell is a research assistant at AEI.