Sean Coughlan: “There are fewer journalists writing about education”

Access and Inclusion January 14, 2014

“There are sheaves of international business magazines. Science and technology likewise. But where is their counterpart in education?” writes Sean Coughlan in this guest article on the importance of Education journalism. Mr. Coughlan is an award-winning education correspondent for BBC News in London.

Education is more important than ever. Everyone agrees that it’s a vital ingredient for the economy, for the well-being of society, for the progress of culture, careers and communities, it’s how individuals understand themselves and the world around them. It’s a force for the common good.

But how do we know if it’s the right kind of education? How do we know how it compares with other countries? How do we share the good ideas and get rid of the bad?

This should be the role of the media in education – creating a public forum for these conversations, providing a thoughtful, engaging way to discuss important decisions, testing ideas and comparing experiences. Education journalism should help to create a well-informed debate. It should be interesting stuff for an interested general audience.

But let’s get to the point.

Education is a big subject. It’s complicated. It’s international in dimension. But the resources for such specialist education journalism are getting stretched ever thinner.

There are fewer journalists writing about education, they have less time, they’re less well funded, they have smaller budgets. There are exceptions to this – and it’s different in different parts of the media – but the long term, broader picture is of less time, more stories.

Instead of going out to meet people, seeing and hearing what’s going on at first-hand, journalists are tied to their desks, depending on emails, press releases, conversations with press officers, turning out more from less. They’re eating a sandwich with one hand and typing with the other. It’s not a good way of digesting the ideas or the food.

Fewer well informed journalists means more ill informed debate and serious discussion can end up as petty political point scoring, in a way that would be much less likely in something like health or science.

And what’s really striking is the growing mismatch between the scale of investment in marketing, promotion, communications and press teams, and then the small, shrinking band of journalists who are meant to make sense of their announcements.

As a meeting ended last week, I looked at my mobile phone and saw that 105 emails had arrived since the meeting had begun. Almost all of these were from public relations firms promoting ideas for stories.

Doubtless many of these ideas will be good ones, deserving to be brought to a wider public. Many of these will be projects into which much time and money will have been invested. But there’s barely time to even scan the email before another information flash flood begins.

It can feel like a jumbo jet full of passengers and their expensive luggage trying to disembark into a tiny family car which is running low on petrol.

Since this WISE blog is an international forum, it’s worth looking at the particular absence of journalistic forums for discussing education from an international perspective.

There are sheaves of international business magazines. Science and technology likewise. But where is their counterpart in education?

When the OECD, World Bank, UN agencies, philanthropists such as the Gates Foundation or organizations such as WISE generate reports, ideas and information, where is the media to cover it? Major universities are now global institutions, but how are their research and ideas shared beyond their own borders?

There has been more and more talk about the PISA tests and the value of international comparisons, but where is this information being analysed, whether for parents or policymakers?

Stories such as tuition fees, the affordability of higher education or unemployed unskilled teenagers are international stories than would benefit from the wider international context. But where is the clearing house for such exchanges of ideas?

If a technology firm had international plans for education, where would be the place to find out? There are experiments beginning in digital education which could have a long-term significance, but where are the stories being written about how it’s working in practice?

Of course there are some worthy attempts to address this area – and some very good journalists in national and specialist newspapers, magazines and websites. The BBC News website has begun to run international education features for the first time, with its Knowledge Economy series. There is clearly an appetite for this as literally millions of people have read these features.

There are also plenty of blogs and websites for experts, researchers and education academics.

And the technology makes it easier than ever before to reach a global audience.

But is it enough? If improving education is such an economic imperative, do we have a corresponding amount of good quality, independent, well-resourced journalism, putting ideas under the microscope.

If a fraction of the marketing money in education was spent on journalism we’d have something more substantial to talk about.

So what’s stopping it?

I’d like to be able to investigate this further for you, but I’ve got another 105 emails to read first.

Follow Sean Coughlan on Twitter @seanjcoughlan