It’s been 25 years since Minnesota adopted the nation’s first charter school law in 1991. In that time, charter schooling has become one of the most influential and enduring education reforms in recent memory. Today, nearly three million students attend more than 6,800 charter schools nationwide. This extraordinary growth has provoked strong emotions among both charter supporters and detractors.
Thus it’s no surprise that those on both sides of the debate have decried media coverage as slanted and biased. In February, Education Post’s Caroline Bermudez complained in a column, “There’s an anti-reform narrative that has taken hold, where published articles and blog posts have become so similar, they start to blur.” Meanwhile, foes of “corporate reform” routinely denounce the press for gullibly swallowing charter school hype.
This is a topic of more than passing interest because the press plays a crucial role in informing the public, refereeing policy deliberations and explaining what school reforms mean for students and families. Yet a survey of existing research reveals surprisingly little scrutiny of how the media covers school reform. To address that question, earlier this month we released a new study examining hundreds of articles on charter schooling that major media outlets published in 2015. The articles were randomly sampled from major national dailies (The New York Times, The Washington Post), education-specific entities (Education Week, Chalkbeat New York), popular online news sites (Slate, Salon) and the newspaper database LexisNexis.
It turns out that claims of systematic media bias are somewhat overstated. Charter coverage was broadly mixed, with half of the news stories and opinion pieces reflecting a neutral or balanced tone. That said, there was still a noticeable negative tilt, with the other half of coverage trending negative by a ratio of more than 2-to-1.