By David Schleifer, PhD
Teachers and journalists have a lot in common. Both play vital roles in helping people understand and engage with the world. And, unfortunately, both are often underpaid, overworked and disrespected, especially in today’s climate of increasing politicization of curriculum and learning.
But how have journalists portrayed teachers in recent years, and how have those portrayals changed over time? To better understand teachers’ portrayals in the news media, Public Agenda researchers analyzed a random sample of more than 2,300 news articles about K-12 education in local and national newspapers, starting from 2009, the first year of the Obama Administration, through 2020, the first year of the pandemic.
We learned that teachers and their voices were often absent from education journalism during those momentous years. For example, our research found that only about one-quarter (24 percent) of news articles about K-12 education from 2009 to 2020 quoted a teacher. Just over half of national newspaper articles (54 percent) and of local newspaper articles (52 percent) about education mentioned teachers in two or more paragraphs. And only about one-fifth of those articles discussed teachers in depth.
Not only were teachers often missing from education journalism, but the media focused far more often on human resource issues for administrators—such as the hiring and firing of superintendents and the twists and turns of school board elections—than they did on teacher hiring, pay, and labor actions. In fact, the news media devoted more space to reporting on extracurricular activities than they did to the teacher workforce.
When newspaper articles did mention teachers, they most often portrayed them engaged in the work of teaching: planning and delivering lessons, managing classrooms, and working one-on-one with students. Evaluation also loomed large, with portrayals of teachers being evaluated particularly common in national newspapers from 2010 to 2015, the year President Obama signed the Every Student Succeeds Act. After 2016, national newspapers’ portrayals of teachers being evaluated fell precipitously, while portrayals of them needing or seeking higher salaries or other compensation started to become more common.
We also surveyed more than 700 public school teachers throughout the country to better understand the issues they would like the media to cover. One of teachers’ top priorities was more coverage of how student poverty and behavioral issues affect teaching and learning. While we found that news media actually did cover that topic quite often, they rarely quoted teachers in those articles or portrayed teachers’ roles in dealing with those issues among their students, leading to coverage that lacked teachers’ voices, perspectives or expertise.
Furthermore, among teachers’ top priorities was more coverage of teacher shortages and whether or not teachers have sufficient classroom supplies. Yet less than five percent of news media articles that mentioned teachers depicted them dealing with those issues. Even fewer news media articles discussed the lack of racial diversity in the teaching profession, a long-term problem in the disproportionately-white teacher workforce.
Journalists, like teachers, typically don’t appreciate outsiders telling them how to do their jobs. And individual journalists cannot shift the tide of education coverage alone. One way to help journalists include teachers’ voices more often would be to create a nonprofit database of teachers who are willing and able to talk to journalists. Such databases, which exist for other types of professionals, could help journalists more easily connect with teachers and include their perspectives in education coverage.
While events like school board elections or the choice of a new superintendent may make for more obvious news stories than staff attrition or outdated technology, journalists and news organizations can find creative ways to cover systemic problems such as teacher shortages, lack of diversity in the teaching profession, and shortages of teaching materials and supplies. By shedding light on these systemic problems, journalism can play an important role in strengthening the teacher workforce, advancing equity, and improving the conditions under which students learn and teachers teach.