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Some Observations on Ed Research and Journalism

From 2010 through 2012, I spent my days reading news media coverage that mentioned educational research and expertise and interviewing journalists and bloggers about how they decided what to write about. This wasn't some strange assignment or torturous hobby. It was my doctoral dissertation study and one of my main research interests. It grew out of the decade-plus I spent writing about education for newspapers in Florida, Alabama, and Colorado.

So when I got the opportunity to fill in for Inside School Research writer Sarah Sparks while she was on maternity leave, I jumped at the chance to temporarily switch roles once again, this time from researcher to reporter. The blog returns this week to Sarah's competent hands. I thought I'd say goodbye by sharing a few lessons and observations gleaned from my four and a half months on the media side of the fence.

1. For journalists: If you're ignoring peer-reviewed education research, you are missing good stories!

One of the main findings of my dissertation study was that, unlike science or medical writers, education reporters pretty much ignore peer-reviewed research. Now, peer review is far from perfect but it at least provides some measure of quality control. Especially if you are unfamiliar with research methods, sifting through studies that are not peer reviewed is kind of like walking across a minefield of potential problems. With peer-refereed journals, that minefield is still there. But at least the peer-review process provides a sort of bomb sniffing dog who steers you away from some obvious dangers. Still, I kind of suspected that peer-reviewed research might be slim pickings for journalists searching for good stories. I was wrong. In the past four and a half months, I have read widely in academic journals in the fields of education, economics, psychology, sociology, public affairs, and other disciplines and I have found countless fascinating studies, too many, really, to write about. Local reporters, you are also missing out. Many of the studies I came across are set in your state or your town and/or conducted by researchers who live near you.

2. For researchers: Be more like Kenneth Elpus.

Kenneth Elpus is an assistant professor of music education at the University of Maryland's School of Music. Earlier this month, he emailed me to let me know that the Journal of Research in Music Education was publishing his study on the impact of NCLB on high school music education. His message briefly summarized his findings and explained why they were important. I took the bait. He had taken the time to target me specifically, with an idea that was a good fit for this blog. In doing so, he was highly unusual. I can't recall any other researcher who, unsolicited, let me know about about an article in a peer-reviewed journal, much less an article that was right up my alley. Some of the big organizations like the American Educational Research Association are doing a really good job these days of publicizing scholarly education research but the reality is that, in many cases, there's just not enough public relations infrastructure in the education field to connect the right reporter with the right research. So if you are a scholar who would like your work to reach those outside of academia, I would strongly suggest that you emulate Kenneth. By this I mean, take the time to read some past coverage of a couple of publications and to then target the appropriate person. It shouldn't take you very long. Don't forget your local outlets. They will probably be most interested in your work and, with the way things work these days, their coverage may be picked up by bigger, national publications. Don't be discouraged if no one responds. Keep trying! If your work is of general interest and you are targeting the right outlets, someone will eventually bite. If all else fails, do it yourself. Write an op-ed for your local newspaper or blog for an online-only outlet.

 3. For journalists: Prioritize research reviews.

Every individual study has flaws, no matter how big it is or well-designed it might be. That's why I preferred, when possible, to cover research reviews that quantitatively or qualitatively summarized multiple studies. And no, they're not boring either, I learned from my stint here at Inside School Research. The top-rated journal in the education field is the Review of Educational Research. As you can probably tell from its title, it focuses on research reviews. It's a good place to start. If you are covering an ongoing issue in your community, I think you owe it to your audience to educate yourself about the body of knowledge that has accumulated on that subject. A research review is a highly efficient and productive way to do that. If you don't understand it, just contact the authors and ask for help. Many researchers are also teachers. They are good at explaining things.

4. For researchers: Tweet!

Journalists have become obsessed with Twitter. Weirdly obsessed, I think. And much more so than the general public, at least that's my highly unscientific personal observation. The good news for researchers is that it's an easy way to reach a large and influential audience, at least for now, until the next social media fad comes along. Try Tweeting links to article abstracts and other research-related items that might interest a broader audience. Bonus points if you can come up with an enticing description that's less than 140 characters. 

5. For journalists and researchers: Connect.

Both of you have misconceptions about one another. I won't repeat them here. They can be pretty negative and, in most cases, undeserved. Based on both my personal experiences and my research, I think both groups have a lot to offer one another. So consider this an unofficial introduction!

 Finally, before handing the baton back, I'd like to thank Paul Teske, my boss at the University of Colorado Denver's School of Public Affairs, for giving me the flexibility to fill in for Sarah while I continued to work as a postdoctoral researcher. And of course, thanks to Debbie Viadero, Ginny Edwards, and all the other Edweek folks for supporting me and for letting me have this opportunity!

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