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Journalistic Self-Loathing & Coverage Of Education Research

Held in a windowless conference room in the massive ant farm known as the Sheraton New York, Tuesday afternoon’s session about media coverage of higher education research was in many ways a preview of the Thursday morning session I’m doing with others about education research and the Internet.

Much of the substance was familiar, if not yet widely heeded: Journalists (NPR’s Steve Drummond, USA Today’s Mary Beth Marklein, and Inside Higher Ed’s Scott Jaschik) telling academics and PR folks to send better press releases and explain their findings better.  Plus the usual concerns about “real” academic research vs. “pseudo” research that’s more readily available and better translated for popular consumption.

Interesting stuff, and smart people making good points, but most of it not entirely new. The thing that jumped out at me for some reason was the idea (I forget who floated it) that coverage of education research might suffer not only for substantive and structural reasons -- we all know those -- but also for psychological ones:  Journalists' tendency to dismiss or downplay ed research because of its affiliation with teacher training, education’s favorite scapegoat.   

It’s an interesting thought – especially since lots of ed research comes from far outside ed schools.  And it got me thinking that another possible reason that media coverage of ed research is so sparse and so critical:  journalists themselves are often underneath it all soft-hearted liberal types who can’t add much less comprehend stats. 

But for the grace of God, they might well have been teachers, or academics, or social scientists themselves.  And so they dismiss ed research not only because it's sometimes bad and associated with crunchy ed schools, but also because of self-loathing that's projected outward.  Totally psychological, and completely unsupported, but it has the ring of truth -- to me at least. 

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More likely: education writers have not the time or the inclination to report education research because it is most often irrelevant and removed from their daily reporting duties and impossible to sell to an editor who, in the newspaper industry these days, wants local, local, local. The education writers I work with are way too busy covering their districts and feeding the daily news beast to bother reading (much less report on) on the the latest "study" out of, say, Think Tank X.

"But for the grace of God, [journalists] might well have been teachers, or academics, or social scientists themselves. And so they dismiss ed research not only because it's sometimes bad and associated with crunchy ed schools, but also because of self-loathing that's projected outward."

Now, I know what copy like this is, really: bait. It is, at least, nice to know that journalists like you will be joining me in the Society of Self-Loathing, raising a glass to our mutual wasted intellect and shallow goals, such as, say, pursuing truth in a free society or producing an educated citizenry. You know, unimportant work, not worth expenditure of research dollars.

So research studying the factors that make teaching effective is lightweight? It's easy to run randomized drug trials on tens of thousands of patients and get clean data (especially with plenty of sponsor dollars funding the work). What's difficult is teasing out the reasons why otherwise bright children fail to thrive in schools and determine the most efficient ways to get them to reach their potential. And the societal stakes are higher, too.

There's bad research everywhere. A good journalist strives to explain, not dismiss. Which is why I read TWIE every day. Interesting post. I still don't understand who's supposed to be bad at math--journalists and teachers?

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