School Choice: Reporting vs Editorializing

From Real Clear Education

We tallied the number of major media news stories and editorials that mentioned each of these studies. We searched one international source (The Economist) and five national sources (The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, USA Today, The Washington Post, and the Los Angeles Times). In each case, keyword searches included combinations of the researcher(s), the school choice program, and the location studied. To ensure consistency, we utilized the search engine LexisNexis, a database that collects news articles from national and international news outlets.

What did we find? It turns out that news stories in these outlets played no favorites when covering school choice research. Thirteen news stories cited a “positive” study and 15 referenced a “negative” study. While some kinds of studies received much more attention than others, coverage was relatively balanced within the five pairs. The coverage was also relatively balanced for each of the various outlets. For example, The New York Times published two articles referencing a positive study and three articles referencing a negative study; for The Washington Post, the figures were five and three.

While the news coverage was quite balanced, the editorial pages were another story. Editorials and op-eds in these newspapers mentioned negative school choice studies twice as often as they did positive studies, with 36 mentions of negative studies compared to 18 of positive studies. Newspaper editorials featured 18 mentions of negative studies versus only eight mentions of positive studies, and about the same ratio was evident across columns and op-eds.

So, major media news coverage appears to be largely impartial when reporting on research in the contested field of school choice. At the same time, the editorial staffs at the most influential newspapers have clearly opted (as is their right) to tout negative research findings much more frequently than positive ones. Given that editorials reference school choice research findings at a substantially higher rate than does news coverage, it’s easy to see why some observers may regard media coverage as tilted, even when news coverage itself is not. When the nation’s most influential newsrooms play favorites, they should be called out. We’ve done that before. But it’s also fair to give due credit when reporters play it straight, as they have when it comes to school choice research.