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AEI Study Finds Slight Negative Tilt in Media Coverage of Charter Schools

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A study of news coverage of charter schools shows "some evidence of a noticeable anti-charter tilt."

The right-leaning American Enterprise Institute coded more than 200 news and opinion articles from 2015 and found that 49 percent were neutral or balanced, 36 percent were negative, and 15 percent were positive.

"The media plays a crucial role in informing the public, refereeing policy deliberations, and explaining what school reforms mean for students and families," says "How the Press Covers Charter Schools," an eight-page report by Frederick M. Hess, AEI's director of education policy studies, and two research assistants, Kelsey Hamilton and Jenn Hatfield.

The data "suggest that claims of media favoritism toward charter schooling—or hostility against it—are overstated," the report concludes."On balance, in 2015, charter coverage was broadly mixed, although it tended to be somewhat more negative than positive."

The study looked at a random sampling of charter school stories (from 5 to 25 percent of each outlet's coverage over the year) from six institutions—The New York Times and The Washington Post, the online journals Salon and Slate, and two education-specific outlets, Education Week and Chalkbeat New York. The study also looked at a sampling of other newspaper coverage, chosen from the Lexis-Nexis database.

Articles were coded on a scale of 1 to 5, with 1's being highly unfavorable toward charter schools, 2's a generally negative orientation, 3's being neutral, 4's generally positive, and 5's using language clearly and consistently positive toward charter schools. Some 73 percent of the articles were classified as news, and 27 percent opinion, such as editorials by the publication or op-ed essays by contributors.

The opinion pieces were more likely to be very negative or somewhat negative instead of very positive or somewhat positive. Most news pieces (95 out of 159) were classified as neutral, with 3 classified as very negative, 37 as somewhat negative, 23 as somewhat positive, and 1 as very positive.

The study found that  81 percent of the selected charter school stories in Salon and Slate were negative. "These outlets had nothing good to say about charter schooling," the report says.

David Daley, the editor in chief of Salon, said via email that "AEI finding that we have nothing good to say about charter schools sounds about right to me!"

Slate didn't respond to a request for comment. Neither did Valerie Strauss, the author of The Answer Sheet blog in The Washington Post, which the study said was responsible for tilting the Post's output to the negative side. 

Education Week was the most positive toward charter schools among the outlets studied, at 3.19 on the 5-point scale. though its opinion pieces were more likely to be negative than its news articles. The New York Times and Chalkbeat New York both scored an even 3.

Kathleen Kennedy Manzo, the managing editor of Education Week, said, "I'm not real clear on what coverage they looked at. Education Week covers charters and choice the way we cover other beats—very aggressively and from a journalistic standpoint. We've done a lot of enterprise on charters and [school] choice. I would hope that coverage doesn't come across as positive or negative, but very analytical and neutral."

The Center for Education Reform, a Washington organization that promotes charter schools and used to grade media coverage of school reform issues, applauded the AEI report.

"It comes as no surprise that the media plays a huge role in how people perceive charter schools," the center said. "The media can only report what they hear and see, and when opponents outnumber proponents and have a habit of spreading misinformation, it's no wonder the media leans negative."

The AEI study also found that "race and racial 'achievement gaps' are also a substantial part of today's education conversation." The study found that 20 to 25 percent of charter coverage delved into questions of race.

"For Chalkbeat New York, Education Week, and The Washington Post, stories that mentioned race tended to be more positive than those that did not," the study says. "For Slate, Salon, and The New York Times, the opposite was true. In other words, there was no clear trend."

The study called for more detailed research into media coverage of charter schools.

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