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Media Fawning a Little Less When It Comes to Edu-Giving

A number of years ago, in my 2005 book With the Best of Intentions: How Philanthropy is Reshaping K-12 Education, I pointed out that media coverage of education foundations tended to be wide-eyed and sycophantic. At that time, I analyzed the coverage of the five leading edu-foundations by the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, Newsweek, and The Associated Press between 1995 and early 2005. Researchers coded each story on K-12 giving as positive, negative, factual, or balanced. Of the 146 articles identified, just five were critical, while nearly half were laudatory.

On the one hand, who could blame the press? Wealthy individuals choosing to give away millions in order to benefit schools and children is a good thing. And, as I noted in Best of Intentions, there's a "natural inclination [for] journalists to frame stories about generous gifts in a positive manner" and for "newspapers to write positively about professionally endorsed school reforms." Meanwhile, I observed, "Reporters have a difficult time finding local educators or scholars who will publicly criticize philanthropic initiatives."

On the other hand, given that most researchers, advocates, and policymakers have lots of reasons to be cautious when it comes to criticizing influential foundations, the media has a crucial role to play as truth-teller and honest chronicler. Absent careful media scrutiny, it's easy for public discussion of edu-giving to amount to little more than pleasant banalities--punctuated only by the jeremiads of conspiracy-minded scolds. Clearly, in the years before and after NCLB, major media were not up to the challenge.

Today, as I noted recently in Phi Delta Kappan, major donors are playing an increasingly aggressive role when it comes to policy. I think this a good and sensible thing. But it also means that more givers are unabashedly trying to shape public policy and influence the use of public funds, making no-fluff inquiry more appropriate and more necessary. Indeed, Chris Tebben, executive director of Grantmakers for Education, has acknowledged, "As philanthropy plays a more active role [in public policy] and its involvement increases, we attract more scrutiny from the general public and the media."

So, has the press improved its game at all in the era of Race to the Top, Stand for Children, Common Core, StudentsFirst, and all the rest? To see, my crack research assistant Taryn Hochleitner replicated the earlier analysis, for 2006 to 2011. First, there certainly appears to be more coverage of edu-philanthopy. Within the five outlets, there were 140 stories that addressed at least one of the five biggest edu-donors (Gates, Walton, Kellogg, Dell, and the Silicon Valley Community Foundation, according to The Foundation Center) during the five years in question. That's about twice the rate at which these outlets ran stories on edu-giving in the decade between 1995 and 2005.

Second, the coverage does appear to be modestly more critical. For our purposes here, let's fold in coverage of the Broad Foundation's K-12 giving and of Mark Zuckerberg's $100 million gift to Newark (since each got substantially more news coverage than any donors except Gates). Adding Broad and Zuckerberg yields a total of 181 stories. Of those, 74 were positive and 17 were critical. Put another way, about 41 percent of stories were positive, nine percent were negative, and the rest factual or balanced. Compared to the previous findings, which found 13 positive stories for every critical one, the mix has noticeably improved--to about four or five to one. Note: when it comes to the subjects of the critical coverage, all of the stories in question dealt with Gates or the Zuckerberg gift.

Bottom line: things are getting incrementally better when it comes to coverage of edu-giving. There's more coverage and a little more skepticism. But there's still lots more room for tough-minded, careful treatment. And it seems like reporters would do well to extend their critical gaze beyond the efforts of the Gates Foundation and young Mr. Zuckerberg.

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The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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