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Second Sachs Lecture: Media's Education Coverage

Newspapers have become a natural ally of those who believe public education has failed, said David C. Berliner, Visiting Professor and this academic year's Julius and Rosa Sachs Lecturer.

In the second of three lectures this fall, Berliner critiqued the news media's coverage of schools. The issue is that problems or mistakes are considered good news by editors and reporters whose unofficial credo is "if it bleeds, it leads," he said.

The general public feels the same way, Berliner said. He cited opinion surveys as proof. For example, a survey last year by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press found that: "The public characterized the press as more unfair, more inaccurate and pushier than in previous years. A majority of the public believe that the press is biased and actually gets in the way of our nation's finding solution to its problems."

A mistake by a school official can become big news, he said. Not too long ago, the press ridiculed school officials who suspended an elementary school boy for kissing a little girl on the cheek. "Very few press reports had any sympathy for a school trying to deal with the high and ignominious rates of sexual harassment and domestic violence in our society," he said. "Because no quarter was given by the press" in that case and in others, critics of public schools are armed with examples in their efforts to prove that "public schools are run by inept bureaucracies."

Public education is always battered by salvos when the results of the Third International Mathematics and Science Study-TIMMS-are discussed. Typically, the performance of American students is described as average and well below the performance of students in Singapore and Japan. The Chicago Sun-Times took a much harsher stance with its headline: "U.S. Schools in Crisis: So What Else Is New?" Occasionally, a newspaper such as the San Diego Union-Tribune, finds "cause to celebrate by announcing: ‘Global Test of Pupils Shows U.S. Improving,'" Berliner said.

However no newspapers note that our schools have a heterogeneous population, in contrast to schools in countries like Japan. Furthermore, Berliner said: "In science, being about average statistically tied us with the inadequate likes of England, Flemish Belgium, Australia, Sweden, Germany, Canada, Norway, New Zealand, Thailand, Israel, Hong Kong, Switzerland and Scotland. It also tied us with the Russian Federation.""It is inappropriate to expect a democratic free press to be anything but highly critical of the society in which it lives. That is one of its functions," Berliner continued. "But it is not inappropriate to ask for balance. And I do not think we have that."

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