In education coverage, media gives GOP's proposals far more scrutiny

In education coverage, media gives GOP's proposals far more scrutiny
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In a new analysis published in The Hill last week, we reported that recent major media coverage of education policy debates shows a clear anti-Republican tilt.

Roughly half of the major newspaper news stories featured headlines and leads critical of GOP proposals on the Higher Education Act and the education-related provisions in last year’s tax bill, with those stories devoting more than twice as many paragraphs to critiquing GOP proposals as to sketching the arguments for them.

Our piece drew a variety of responses. One, from a veteran education journalist, suggested that the results likely just reflected reporters’ natural inclination to treat skeptically the party in power. With the GOP controlling the executive branch and Congress, she posited, perhaps reporters are simply taking care to critically assess major policy proposals. It’s a valid point.

Conveniently, a little less than a decade ago, during the first year of the Obama administration, a Democratic president and Congress put forward major education proposals of their own. Our colleague suggested that if we went back and examined coverage of the education-related provisions of the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, especially the Race to the Top program, we’d probably see the same kind of tough scrutiny.

While we wondered whether the “Race to the Top’s” upbeat moniker would have perhaps ensured positive coverage, it was suggested that reporters are savvy enough, and were skeptical enough about the kinds of charter school and test-based reforms that Obama supported,  that they wouldn’t pull any punches.

We thought it a hypothesis well worth testing, especially as it could provide a heartening explanation for our earlier findings. So, using the same approach we employed in the earlier analysis, we searched news coverage in the mainstream press (The New York Times, Washington Post, USA Today, and Wall Street Journal) and education-specific press (Education Week and the Chronicle of Higher Education) for articles with at least one paragraph dedicated to the education provisions of the massive 2009 stimulus or, specifically, to the bill’s Race to the Top program.

We searched from January 20 to October 1, 2009 (a period that spanned from President Obama’s inauguration to about seven months after passage of the stimulus and three months after the official announcement of Race to the Top). We searched only for news accounts, excluding editorials and op-eds.

For the period in question, we identified 41 mainstream press stories covering the education-related stimulus provisions or the Race to the Top program. Of those, 33 had neutral headlines, such as the straightforward “Obama to Unveil Guidelines for New Education Fund.” There were also eight stories with positive headlines, such as “Stimulus Includes $5 Billion Flexible Fund for Education Innovation,” and none that carried negative headlines. The framing of these news stories showed a similar pattern, with 32 framed impartially, seven positively, and two negatively. A neutral New York Times article, for example, opened with:

The economic stimulus bill that is expected to win passage in the Senate on Tuesday would provide about $83 billion for child care, public schools and universities.”

While the mainstream press was generally impartial in its treatment of Race to the Top and the stimulus’s education provisions, there were news accounts which seemed to visibly cheer on the program. The Washington Post, for instance, framed Race to the Top as “helping stave off teacher layoffs, keep class sizes in check and jump-start efforts to revamp aging schools.” Upbeat Wall Street Journal stories described Race to the Top as “the most ambitious federal intervention in education in decades” and as “designed to fuel innovation in the classroom.” (Our previous analysis gives a sense of how jarringly different this language is from that used to cover recent Republican proposals.)

Meanwhile, the specialized education press published 96 relevant articles, of which 74 had impartial headlines while 10 displayed a positive tilt and 12 a negative one. One impartial Education Week headline read: “Guidelines Sketch out Use of Aid: Federal Stimulus Allocations to Come Soon, with Strings.” Similarly, 75 out of the 96 articles featured impartial leads. One impartial Education Week story, for instance, offered two competing perspectives in its lead, opening:

“One education advocate calls it ‘a golden opportunity,’ while a think tank official has labeled it ‘the largest education slush fund in history.’ Either way, (Race to the Top) ... is drawing attention far out of proportion to its size."

In short, in 2017 as in 2009, the education press admirably reported the facts without taking sides. Indeed, three-quarters or more of education press reporting was impartial in 2009, just as was the case in 2017-18.

The mainstream press was a different story.  While mainstream coverage in 2009 was mostly impartial, the picture was profoundly different in 2017-18.  Over the past three months, only half the news stories we studied treated GOP education proposals impartially, while almost all the rest were clearly negative.   

We conducted this analysis to see if there was a potentially charitable explanation for the anti-GOP tilt evident in major newspaper coverage of today’s prominent education debates. It would have been nice to see that what might seem like bias was actually just tough-minded reporting and a healthy skepticism of the party in power. Instead, we found that coverage of Democratic proposals back in 2009, when Democrats enjoyed unified control of the federal government, was qualitatively different than the critical coverage devoted to recent GOP proposals in similar circumstances.

It’s a tall order to ask that we treat media coverage as responsible and fair-minded, when journalistic skepticism appears sporadically — and seemingly only when Republicans are in power.

Frederick M. Hess is director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute. Brendan Bell and RJ Martin are research assistants at AEI.