School choice is a highly controversial topic in America today, even with the many charter and private schools that have offered a better way for thousands of students each year. Union and public school opposition to choice programs remains as strong as ever, but in spite of that choice programs are growing across the country. How is the news media covering this growth? The reporting is surprisingly fair and impartial.
Education Scholar Frederick Hess and his assistants Brendan Bell and RJ Martin examined five pairs of studies that were largely identical, but with some differing results.
We tallied the number of major media news stories and editorials in leading outlets that mentioned each of the studies. We examined coverage in the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, USA Today, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, and The Economist.
The bottom line: 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 studies received much more attention than others, coverage was relatively balanced within each pair and across the various outlets.
The reporting on the studies was remarkably unbiased and impartial in Hess' opinion. They showed both types of results and largely did not attempt to slant towards one way or the other. That was for the news itself, but for editorials and op-eds, the situation was much different.
While the news coverage didn’t play favorites when it came to research, the editorial pages were another story. Editorials and op-eds cited “negative” school choice studies twice as often as they did “positive” studies, with 36 mentions of “negative” studies compared to just 18 of “positive” studies. The 2-to-1 ratio of negative-to-positive was consistent across newspaper editorials and the op-eds they published.
With the ratio of anti-school choice articles being so high, it may be easy to portray the entire media as being against school choice as a policy. But as Hess explains, editorial writers have the right to take whatever policy position they so choose, and news reporters can't control what those views are. The editorial writers are discussing research more than the new reporters though, and that makes truly analyzing how the media treat the issue more complicated than one may expect.