John Merrow and the Delusions of Edujournalism

Veteran edujournalist John Merrow claims on his blog: “Education reporting has never been better than it is right now.”

Diane Ravitch mused on her blog about how I would respond to Merrow so here you go.

First, Merrow’s assertion can be true only if edujournalism was criminally horrible in the past to which he is comparing today’s journalism—which is negligently horrible.

Next, since Merrow mentions the Education Writers Association (EWA), his delusional post represents perfectly a central problem with edujournalism reflected in EWA: edujournalists are trapped within an insular norm of reporting that includes both traditional flaws in journalism (objective journalism anchored in reporting “both sides” dispassionately) and contemporary market forces that are contracting mainstream media, resulting in press-release journalism by journalists without the necessary expertise or experiences needed to report on a discipline or field.

In some of his most high-profile work, in fact, Merrow has personified a double failure common among edujrounalist: first, Merrow eagerly participated in the media’s creation of Michelle Rhee, and then, he fumbled badly and inadequately the media’s holding Rhee accountable for her horrible policies and inept (possibly criminal) leadership.

Merrow hangs his praise on several outlets that focus on education:

National coverage is strong: Chalkbeat (now in 4 states and expanding), The Hechinger Report, Pro Publica and Politico Education are providing outstanding national and local coverage. NPR (National Public Radio) has a strong education team, as does the PBS NewsHour (the latter team includes my former colleagues at Learning Matters).  Although Education Week is a trade publication, it remains a “must read” for anyone interested in the both the big picture and the weeds of the business.  (One of my regrets is that when we negotiated the merger into Ed Week, I did not ask for a lifetime subscription!)  There are more interesting education blogs than I could begin to count, and that’s a good thing.

Routinely, however, these exact outlets mangle reporting about schools, teachers, and all aspects of formal education (see, for example, examinations of Education Week and NPR).

The primary mainstream outlets for edujournalism are negligently horrible—unable to rise above press-release journalism, to see through the political manipulation of journalism and education, to listen to professional educators and researchers, or to critically examine assumptions about children/students, teaching and learning, and the purposes of school.

Merrow also celebrates: “When The Tampa Bay Times won a 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Investigative Reporting, that clinched it: education had become THE cool and significant issue to cover!”

Setting aside we eschew all caps and exclamation points in the writing of middle schoolers, again, his celebration proves his delusion.

As I have examined in How Good Is the Best Edujournalism?, this award-winning series does represent the pinnacle of edujournalism, but that pinnacle is well below the level of “good journalism”: treating old news as new news (edujournalists as non-expert in the field have no historical lens about education) and framing educational quality within a simplistic and flawed context that outcomes are primarily about individual effort (students, teachers).

After listing a tired list of edustories needing to be told, Merrow ends with “In sum, education reporters are getting it right. Now keep on keeping on!”

We are left with a veteran edujournalist reporting very badly on edujournalism.

If only this were satire.


8 thoughts on “John Merrow and the Delusions of Edujournalism”

  1. The first step to being a good journalist is being a good detective. The mainstream “journalists” covering education apparently don’t see the need to do much detective work — they tend to simply assume that they have already solved the mystery, and then they make up whatever “clues” they need to arrive back at their own contrived conclusion. These journalists make Scooby Doo look professional. Zoinks!

  2. I have a BA in journalism and after I earned it, I stopped reading newspapers and believing everything I heard on the radio and TV news. I learned that the process that creates the news is rife with obstacles, bias, intentional an unintentional, and errors. If you hear something that catches your interested from the traditional media — something that you might remember longer than a day — fact check from the most reliable fact gathering sites possible and that usually does not mean from any of the traditional media sources. The media is an autocratic for-profit corporate industry. That industry is not a democracy. It is not dedicated to the truth — no matter what they claim. It is dedicated to making money for its over paid CEOs (there are six of them who are all white and are paid seven or eight figure annual incomes, because 90% of the traditional media is owned by six huge corporations) and its shareholders and that means mostly focusing and reporting what will attract the biggest audience even if that means cherry picking the facts, rushing to conclusions and publishing likes and/or falsehoods.

    In addition, a reporter that does the research, interviews and writes the story might be honest but that is just the first step before the story is published or reported. The next step is an editor or editors who revise, slash, cut, add, etc. Then there might be someone else from the publisher’s office who revises, slashes, cuts, and/or adds some more because they were ordered to do it from the to, the CEO, who ordered the publisher to put a specific spin on a story since that’s what the CEO wants everyone else to think. Even one or more of the biggest stockholders might have a say in the bias and misinformation that creeps into stores along the corporate assembly line of news reporting. In fact, a story that should be told might get cut because someone on high doesn’t want the truth to be known on an issue they have an agenda for. That’s when someone like a Bill Gates uses his money and power to influence what the media reports — facts and truth be damned because Bill wants the truth to be manufacturer to be what he wants it to be even if it isn’t supported by all the reputable facts. The Koch brothers manipulating of the climate change issue is a perfect example when a well funded conspiracy and hoax alleges (without every using that word) that the irrefutable overwhelming facts are a conspiracy and a hoax.

    We live in a world where the 0.1% order how history is going to be told before it happens and the Bill Gates, Waltons and Koch brothers of this world have the money and power to make that happen.

  3. Paul, Just a quick note to say this post is terrific. Thank you for it and for your continued incisive commentaries.

  4. I would have thought anyone claiming a golden age of edujournalism would have cited first the Detroit Free Press, next whatever Ohio media have been responsible for bringing the subject of charter school poor ed results, financial malfeasance, & waste of taxpayer $ to the attention of the mainstream. In both those states these days, despite their voters’ anti-teachers’ union, pro-school-choice leanings, you can discern a healthy skepticism in the comment threads of any run-of-the-mill school-privatization-booster edujournalist article.

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