Reporting on Education: Tips from Our Newsletter

Last Updated May 2024

Contents

  • Language & Word Choice
  • Reframing Headlines
  • Critical Voices
  • Must-Reads

The guidance below collects the thoughts, tips, and must-reads about reporting on education published in our weekly newsletter, Revisions. The information is presented in roughly chronological order, has been edited for clarity, and is updated where necessary.

Language & Word Choice

March 10, 2022
What does “culture war” mean? How can journalists use it accurately when reporting on topics of increased public debate?

“Culture war” is a phrase popularized by sociologist James Davison Hunter some 30 years ago to describe conflict over culture — our values, beliefs, and how we live — playing out in the political sphere. Issues recently given the “culture war” label by news media include laws that target parents of trans children for prosecution, barring LGBTQ and racial injustice education for children, abortion rights, and COVID-19 mitigation.

Defining these as issues of “culture” is misleading. Conflict over such issues is not debate for debate’s sake. Erasing racism and queer communities from our education system is a step toward erasing people of color and LGBTQ people from existence. Eliminating gender-affirming healthcare for kids is a step toward erasing trans adults. Barring access to abortion is a step toward controlling women’s bodies and lives. Banning measures that diffuse the effects of a deadly pandemic costs lives. These issues aren’t about “values” or “how we live,” they’re about who gets to live.

Lumping debates over whose life is worthy and free into the term “culture wars” dilutes the serious and often deadly consequences of whose “values” are enshrined into law. Journalists should avoid using this shorthand and apply the language of human rights and their violations when the issue is life and death for the “loser” of said war.

 

March 9, 2023

There has been plenty of chatter of late over artificial intelligence and how tools like ChatGPT may impact the worlds of journalism, misinformation, and education. No one can predict the future, but we can be prepared for it.

A new game called Real or Fake tests your knowledge of whether text has been written by a human or a computer. It presents the player with sentences pulled from short stories, news articles, recipes, and presidential speeches or created using GPT models — and you have to guess which is which. It’s surprisingly difficult, in my experience. Give it a whirl and see if you can spot the differences. It’s a skill anyone learning on the internet should hone.

 

April 5, 2024

Just this week, The University of Texas at Austin announced firings to comply with Texas’s ban on DEI initiatives at public universities. If you’re on the higher education beat, check out The Journalist’s Resource’s summary of their recent webinar on the topic.

Reframing Headlines

April 21, 2022

The headlines below refer to a bill signed by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) in March 2022, which, as the Washington Post reports,:

“…[bans] instruction or classroom discussion of ‘sexual orientation or gender identity’ for kindergartners through third graders in public schools. It also empowers parents to sue school districts over teachings they don’t like, and requires schools to tell parents when their child receives mental health services.”

After the bill passed, the Walt Disney Co. released a statement condemning the bill and asking for it to be repealed. Both of the headlines below frame these events very differently.

In Disney's feud with Florida Gov. DeSantis, echoes of a culture war that never died

The headline above, from a Los Angeles Times story syndicated by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, combines two harmful tropes of political coverage. First, it uses the word “feud” to describe a very uneven conflict. As MSNBC’s Mehdi Hasan and NYU’s Jay Rosen have discussed on Twitter, calling this a “feud” creates a false equivalence between Disney and DeSantis’ actions. DeSantis and his party have led a bad-faith campaign accusing the company of being “groomers” who support child abuse and made moves to remove the company’s self-governing status in the state. Disney, on the other hand, put out a late, three-sentence statement. These actions are not proportional.

Second, the use of the term “culture war” to vaguely refer to the long fight for equal rights for the LGBTQ community is delegitimizing. As I’ve written previously in this newsletter, “Lumping debates over whose life is worthy and free into the term ‘culture wars’ dilutes the serious and often deadly consequences of whose ‘values’ are enshrined into law.”

RON DESANTIS IS THREATENING DISNEY WITH REGULATIONS BECAUSE IT SPOKE OUT AGAINST FLORIDA'S ANTI-LBGTQ LAW

The headline above from Vanity Fair gets it right. It calls DeSantis’s actions “threatening” and refers to Disney’s actions as “spoke out.” These terms accurately describe those actions without implying they are of equal weight. The headline also refers to the bill as “Anti-LGBTQ,” putting the true goal of the bill in harsh relief rather than referring it to as a “culture war.”

 

June 23, 2022

New York Magazine released a cover story in June 2022 with the headline “Canceled at 17.” It tells the tale of a teen boy who shared nude photos of his ex-girlfriend with other students and was subsequently ostracized by his peers. There’s plenty wrong with this story — as many have pointed out on Twitter, there are many young girls who have been similarly abused or worse and became the ostracized ones without receiving a major cover story in their defense.

But the headline is particularly disingenuous.

According to the story, the boy in question faced few consequences for violating his ex-girlfriend besides ostracization — at his school. However he did attend four proms and is headed off to college. Moreover, the “mistake” in the subheading was the sharing of nude photos of a minor without consent, and it’s hard to track whether teenagers “never forgive” after one tumultuous year.

The real issue at the heart of the story is that young people are looking to hold each other accountable for abuse and harassment that has often been swept under the rug, and, as teens, do not yet have the wherewithal, support, or resources to do that effectively. In this case it also seems the adults in the room often spent more time consoling the “canceled” than addressing the reasons their peers were calling them out. But dismissing these attempts at peer justice, however messy, as “cancel culture” because our society hasn’t found nuanced enough vocabulary to distinguish between a desire for accountability and the weaponization of it is unfair. A better headline, for a fairer story, might look like the following:

“Canceled” or facing consequences? Teens seeking justice among peers grapple with adults who don’t know how to help

 

February 2, 2023

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis announced a legislative plan Tuesday that, if taken up wholesale, will have a huge impact on the state’s higher education system. DeSantis, who is expected to run for president in 2024, wants to ban state colleges from hosting programs on diversity, equity and inclusion, and critical race theory. (Reminder: CRT has gone from a term describing a legal theory not actually taught in U.S. grade schools to a euphemism for American history that acknowledges racism and slavery.)

This sounds very much like the desire for a memory hole where the country’s long history of racism and white supremacy is “disappeared” for the benefit of the white and powerful. The rewriting of history for political gain, banning education that would weaken white supremacy, suppression of the opposition … add to this Florida’s new censorship of school libraries and state “retraining” on book collection and it’s hard not to describe this series of moves as neo-fascist. That ideology, of course, relies heavily on tightly maintaining the education of its people in a way that serves its leaders. That education usually promotes a revisionist nationalism, often calling back to idealized “better” times and/or traditions.

The following statements came from DeSantis’s office Tuesday:

“… the legislation will ensure Florida’s public universities and colleges are grounded in the history and philosophy of Western Civilization ….”

“In Florida, we will build off of our higher education reforms by aligning core curriculum to the values of liberty and the Western tradition ….”

And yet, headlines from major outlets announcing this news barely batted an eyelash. Some, like the New York Times headline below, felt the crux of the story is actually its impact on DeSantis’s political clout.

DeSantis Takes On the Education Establishment, and Builds His Brand

Not only does this wording dismiss very impactful policy as a savvy political move, but it sets up and normalizes conflict between DeSantis and the public education system. Calling it the “education establishment” — as if state government and public education don’t necessarily work in tandem — legitimizes this “culture war” and aligns itself with a populist ideology that rails against said “establishment.” The DeSantis office was probably high-fiving over this headline today.

Similarly, the headlines below support DeSantis’ point of view more than an “objective” journalist would expect. The first is a National Review headline run by Yahoo! which highlights the elimination of “bureaucracies,” language used by DeSantis and a common dog-whistle from the right as it denotes ineffective government spending. This headline fully buys into the premise that DEI initiatives are wastes of money.

DeSantis Proposes Legislation to Eliminate DEI Bureaucracies in Florida Colleges

The second, below, is from the Tampa Bay Times; a similar wording ran in Orlando’s Spectrum News 13. Both use “indoctrination” in quotes to imply the word came from DeSantis, not necessarily the newsroom. But since nothing about either headline seeks to interrogate the existence of actual indoctrination, we’re left to assume that it does actually exist. Unless, of course, the writers were attempting a bit of irony-via-scare-quotes. It wouldn’t be the first time, but it’s a cheap way of attempting to telegraph the truth without being married to it.

DeSantis proposes sweeping higher education measures aimed at ‘indoctrination’

What would have been an appropriate headline to announce DeSantis’s intervention into higher education? The Associated Press, below, simply tells it like it is.

DeSantis pushes ban on diversity programs in state colleges

Critical Voices

In any other country, bills of the sort we are seeing mandating a positive image of the country’s history in schools would be immediately recognized as authoritarian in character and a red alarm danger sign. The US media has to treat what is happening here with more seriousness.

Yale philosophy professor Jason Stanley is referring to bills which made the rounds in U.S. state legislatures in early 2022. One such bill about “teacher’s loyalty,” proposed in New Hampshire, looks to ban teachers from advancing any “theory” or “doctrine” which promotes a “negative” account of U.S. history. If the dangers of such a political movement aren’t clear, I suggest checking out Stanley’s recent essay on America being in “fascism’s legal phase.”

Must-Reads

The history of book bans—and their changing targets—in the U.S.
Erin Blakemore, National Geographic
History repeats itself, they say — especially if we don’t learn from it. National Geographic’s explainer on U.S. book bans is the context we all need to understand how campaigns like those we’re currently experiencing rise and fall. You should definitely bookmark this one if you cover local schools or libraries.

How the Far Right Took Over a Pennsylvania School Board—And How Parents Took It Back
Kathryn Joyce, Vanity Fair
Vanity Fair took a deep dive into the Pennridge School District’s recent rollercoaster and specifically highlighted how its lessons can be applied to similar situations across the U.S. Anyone reporting on education should become familiar with the cast of characters at the center of this story.

A Message From the Chancellor on the Recent Student Protest
Andrew Patrick Clark, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency
When history repeats itself, it can be both disturbing and weirdly affirming to return to satirical writing, once written about a specific event, that has since turned evergreen. Like The Onion’s classic take on mass shooting news, “‘No Way To Prevent This,’ Says Only Nation Where This Regularly Happens.” Another one I’d recommend is the gut-punch of a parody that is this 2023 letter from McSweeney’s Internet Tendency. I won’t spoil it, but it’s well worth your time.

A GOP Texas school board member campaigned against schools indoctrinating kids. Then she read the curriculum.
Jeremy Schwartz, Texas Tribune/ProPublica
This story about a school board member fighting back against party purity tests is a fascinating read. It may just give you a jolt of hope that facts do matter.