Education

The good, bad, and ugly of how major newspapers covered the 2018 teacher strikes

During spring 2018, tens of thousands of teachers in West Virginia, Kentucky, Oklahoma, Arizona, Colorado, and North Carolina walked out of their schools. These teachers were angry about pay, school funding, proposed benefit changes, and more. The walkouts attracted extensive media attention across the land; that coverage has helped shape public understanding of the strikes and any political impact. With that in mind, in a new report published by the American Enterprise Institute and Education Next, we've examined how five national newspapers (the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, and USA Today) covered the strikes.

Specifically, we analyzed how stories about the strikes were framed, who got quoted in those stories, and what information about teacher compensation was provided to readers. We first identified all the stories these newspapers published on the walkouts between February 15 (just before the first walkout in West Virginia) and June 1 (after the last major walkout ended in May), and then examined the resulting 59 articles.

What did we find?

The good. When we analyzed headlines and leads to see how stories were framed, we found an admirable degree of impartiality. Of the 59 headlines, 56 displayed no tilt toward either the strikers or their critics. Similarly, 56 of the 59 leads played it straight. In almost no case did either the headlines or the leads of major newspaper articles overtly favor one side or the other. For those who think that major outlets too often frame coverage of contentious issues in terms of good guys and bad guys, this was a reassuring development.

The bad. When it came to shaping the narrative of the walkouts, of course, it didn't only matter how stories were framed; it also mattered which voices got to share their concerns and inform the narrative. To explore which voices shaped the coverage, we tallied all quotes attributed by name in the 59 articles, identifying 170 individuals who were quoted a total of 254 times. (The numbers don't match because some individuals were quoted on multiple occasions.)

We found 31 percent of quotes were from public officials and another 24 percent from union officials. Teachers who were not identified as union leaders contributed 28 percent of the quotes. Meanwhile, notable for their absence were the families affected by the walkouts. Of the 254 quotes published, fewer than 5 percent came from an impacted parent or student. In fact, while families bore the brunt of the strike-related disruptions, just 14 percent of the stories featured even a single parent or student quote.

The quotes also exhibited a seemingly pro-strike tilt. While 60 percent of all quotes supported the strikes and just 14 percent were anti-strike, opinion appears to have been more mixed than this lopsided ratio suggests. For instance, of the few parents and students quoted, over 80 percent were pro-strike. But a national 2018 Education Next poll showed that 53 percent of the general public supported teachers' right to strike-and one-third rejected it. So in the strike states, public opinion toward the walkouts likely was positive-but perhaps much less so than the coverage seemed to suggest. Similarly, while 86 percent of teacher quotes were pro-strike, that figure also may be high. State-level polling of teachers is hard to come by, but it's worth noting that even the pro-strike Arizona Educators United claimed that only 78 percent of Arizona teachers were pro-strike.

The ugly. Far and away, the most significant concern with the coverage was that it almost uniformly failed to tell readers what they needed to know to reach informed conclusions about the state of teacher compensation. After all, while 98 percent of articles referenced the value of teacher salaries, salary is not the whole of teacher compensation. Indeed, the generosity of teacher healthcare and pensions is a major issue in discussions of teacher compensation and school spending.

Yet, less than half the articles mentioned healthcare benefits, and barely a third mentioned pensions. Just three percent of stories even obliquely referenced the value of teacher pensions, and not a single one mentioned teacher vacation time or the length of the teacher work year. The point is not that such information points a particular direction on teacher pay, but that it is essential to help readers reach their own judgments about the merits of teacher demands.

Meanwhile, just two percent of articles compared teacher pay to the state's median household income. Especially in financially stressed states, it was potentially relevant that, in some cases, the average teacher was already earning more than the state's median household. At the least, readers would benefit from having some sense of how teacher pay compares to the income of the households who would fund any boost in their pay.

After all, while Education Next reported that two-thirds of the public supports higher pay for teachers, that figure falls to 49 percent when respondents are informed how much teachers in their state already earn. Regardless of where one stands on teacher pay increases, this kind of information is clearly relevant to public deliberation.

Newspapers deserve commendation for their impartial framing of the stories. At the same time, the selection of quotes raised some grounds for concern, and a remarkable lack of detail about teacher compensation meant that stories lacked crucial context. In the end, these flaws appear to have injected a subtle but important pro-strike bias into the coverage. But with the possibility of more strikes looming, the press should have plenty of opportunities to do better.

Frederick M. Hess is director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute. R.J. Martin is a research assistant at AEI. They are the authors of the new study "How Did Major Newspapers Cover the 2018 Teacher Strikes?"

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