There are as many ways to skew a story as there are letters in the alphabet. The day-to-day stuff — a misstated fact here, an unreliable source there, a false equivalence here, a loaded angle over there — is what keeps us rolling here at CJR Daily. Nothing like a good factual error to provide fodder for a quick 300 words. But sometimes the problems in articles are too elusive to pin down in any one-day scan of the latest news. Such subtle cases require months of systematic coding and analysis before any conclusions can be drawn.

We don’t do that stuff. But Alex Medler of the Colorado Children’s Campaign did. His recent study, titled “The ‘Framing’ of Charter School Stories,” analyzes coverage of charter schools in national and local papers from the Washington, D.C. metropolitan area over a four-month period.

According to Medler’s study, most charter school articles fall into either a “complementary” or “competitive” frame: “[S]tories that treat charter schools as complementary to public education emphasize how they add to public education. Stories that treat charter schools as competitive with public schools emphasize what makes them different from traditional public schools and how those differences put pressure on the rest of the public schools.”

And there’s a problem right there. Just to be clear, charter schools are part of the public school system. If you weren’t quite sure of that, don’t be ashamed: In a poll (PDF) conducted by the Center for Education in Reform in January, only one in five respondents knew that charter schools are public — 38 percent thought they were private, and 16 percent thought they were magnet schools.

Such confusion exists even though charter schools aren’t just the latest fad in education reform — they’ve been around since 1992, and today they’re serving close to one million students around the country. So this is probably something worth making sure people understand.

Back to Medler’s study, then, which sheds some light on why so many people are in the dark about charters. Whether an article has a competitive or complementary frame could completely alter the way charter schools as a whole come across. Read a complementary article, and you think that charter schools are an innovative way to enhance the floundering public school system; read a competitive one, and you worry that charter schools are draining resources from already underfunded public schools.

Medler found that the difference between complementary and competitive stories often came down to whether the article was an in-depth look at one charter school or an overall analysis of charter school policy. Specifically, “Only one of the 19 stories primarily about individual schools framed charters in competitive terms,” while “The 37 stories about school choice policies were twice as likely to treat charter schools as competition to the public education system.”

Both types of stories are popping up frequently. Just yesterday the Atlanta Journal-Constitution ran an article on a local start-up charter. The article leads with the line: “Russ and Dee Dee Thomas were looking for something different for their daughter Lindsay’s education.” No surprise, then, that the article unfolds with a complementary spin. The start-up charter school — the one that will provide the “something different” the Thomases crave — will offer instruction in Arabic, numerous hands-on projects, and a system called “looping,” where students have the same teacher for two years in a row. The implication in the story is that these are all things that big, traditional public schools are often unable to provide. So we come out of this article feeling happy for little Lindsay Thomas and thankful for her parents’ ability to find a non-traditional public school to suit her needs.

But then again, with only an extra paragraph or two and a slightly altered lede, that same story could instead have been the tale of an administrator at a traditional public school struggling to keep capable students like Lindsay from leaving for the nearby charter school. It could have emphasized the pressures that such charter schools put on public schools to keep up, and thereby presented the same basic information in a competitive frame.

Journalists are notoriously oblivious when it comes to examining the shortcomings of the motifs that they operate within day in and day out. It’s likely that most writers don’t even think about whether they’re framing charter schools in a competitive or complementary way. As Medler points out, they’re probably just looking for convenient ways to structure their articles, and frames provide that — even frames adopted unconsciously by the writers who work within them.

And that’s the problem.

Samantha Henig

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Samantha Henig was a CJR Daily intern.