As our newsrooms shrink, journalists working the education beat are often among the hardest hit. Not only are they working with fewer resources, but, due to newsroom restructuring, education writers often answer to editors who don’t fully understand the bureaucratic nuances of the school systems. To combat this problem, the Education Writers Association announced in December the creation of a new position, a Public Editor, to serve as an additional resource for education journalists. This week, the EWA announced the hiring of Linda Perlstein, a former Washington Post education reporter and currently a freelance writer and book author (see her CJR essay about why she left the Post to write books, here), to fill the unique new role.
As public editor, Perlstein will coach individual reporters, offering guidance on sourcing and content knowledge, and coordinating with their editors to assure that her work complements what they are doing. She will also write a regular column—to be published on the EWA Web site—monitoring the state of education coverage in newsrooms across the country. Perlstein discussed the state of that coverage with CJR’s Megan Garber.
Megan Garber: What are some of the biggest challenges facing education reporters?
Linda Perlstein: If you’re expected to turn out two daily stories a day, and you’re expected to cover every hiccup of your local school board, it’s hard to get the time to sit inside a classroom, talk to teachers, or get to know administrators as anything more than potential sources for react quotes. But we need to find ways to do that, because that’s what makes the most powerful reporting. It doesn’t have to be inside a classroom, but flushing out the data, the studies, and the statistics with how things work in the real world is the best thing we can do for readers.
MG: What about access? Schools are notoriously difficult for journalists to get into.
LP: It’s really hard. It’s particularly hard to get into big urban schools, high schools. That’s a huge problem in education reporting. A lot of people in education complain that the media doesn’t get it right, the media doesn’t tell the whole story. And I ask them, “When’s the last time when you were open and honest with a reporter?” There’s a huge, huge culture of fear in education among teachers and administrators. Principals don’t really want to hear what the teachers have to say, superintendents don’t really want to hear what the principals have to say, the education department doesn’t seem to want to hear what the state board has to say—and what that means for reporters is: everyone’s really afraid to be honest. Whether you’re being visited by a journalist, or by the lieutenant governor’s wife, or whomever, if someone comes into your school, you want to show them the best you have to offer. If I were a principal, though, I’d want to show people the worst—so they could really understand what’s going on and appreciate the challenges that I face. If you always put a sheen on things, we’re never going to understand what you’re going through as educators. And we need to start having honest conversations in this country about what’s happening in our schools.
MG: Why is that tendency so pervasive? And what are people afraid of, exactly?
LP: The school system is a bureaucracy like any other, and this tends to be the way bureaucracies function. We’re talking about teachers who, for all their great merits, aren’t always the people who rock the boat—and we’re talking about a certain institutional history of getting in trouble when they do. The greatest ideal these days is to be a team player. Culturally, in the school, you’re supposed to be a team player. And questioning anything is seen as not being a team player. You can get on the wrong side of your boss for doing that, and I see that happening all the time in schools. So, certainly, talking to journalists isn’t the first priority for someone who’s trying to keep her job and fly under the radar. That makes it extra hard for education journalists to show things as they really are, but no less important—in fact, more important, because if we don’t do it, I’m not sure who can.
MG: Has that culture changed at all with the implementation of No Child Left Behind?