September 16, 2009

Politics Puts School Back in the News

Speech to Students Supreme Court Rulings Education Reform Speech No Child Left Behind and Financial Problems Supreme Court Ruling and Student Loan Reform
Sep 7-13 2009 6
Jun 24-29 2007 4.3
Mar 9-15 2009 3
Apr 27-May 3 2009 2.6
Apr 20-26 2009 2.5

#1 – Where last week’s flap over Obama talking to school children ranks in education coverage since PEJ began tracking coverage.

School issues are not usually atop the news agenda. Since PEJ began the News Coverage Index in January 2007, the topic has filled just 0.2% of the newshole. But the media paid attention last week, however briefly, to a story that had more to do with politics than scholastics—the flap over President Obama’s September 8 speech to students that triggered conservative criticism. With that controversy generating most of the attention, education issues filled 6.0% of the newshole from September 7-13, the high water mark for that topic since the inception of the NCI.  (As it turned out, the speech was non-controversial and many media post-mortems acknowledged the controversy had been overblown.)

A look at the five biggest weeks for education coverage reveals a common theme. They all reflect instances when the classroom became part of a political or judicial issue.

The second-biggest week was June 24-29, 2007, when education filled 4.2% of the newshole thanks to two Supreme Court rulings—one that banned the use of race in determining school placement and another that upheld the suspension of a student who held up a “bong hits for Jesus” sign on school grounds. Next came Obama’s first speech as President devoted to education reform, which filled 3.0% of the newshole from March 9-15, 2009.

The fourth-biggest week was April 27-May 3, 2009, when the media focused on concerns about the No Child Left Behind Act and the effect of the economic crisis on school systems (2.6%).  Rounding out the top five was the week of April 20-26, 2009 (2.5%) when education coverage included both a political and legal storyline. Coverage that week was driven by a Supreme Court hearing on a 13-year-old girl who was strip searched by school authorities searching for drugs as well as Obama’s push for student loan reform.

In a media culture that increasingly is built around talk, commentary and polarization, last week suggests education is a bigger story when it feeds political controversy.

Tricia Sartor of PEJ