When West Virginia teachers walked out on strike this February, education received a lot of attention in the national news media. Reports on strikes around the country over the next few months provided some unusually vivid insight into the way reporters think, talk, and write about education. Frederick M. Hess and RJ Martin at the American Enterprise Institute took advantage of this opportunity to publish a study on coverage of the strikes; they found headlines to be “remarkably impartial”—although details embedded later in most of the articles skewed treatment disproportionately in favor of the strike.

To understand how the media presented this story to the nation, Hess and Martin analyzed every article covering the strikes from five national newspapers: The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, and USA Today. They evaluated whether each headline and lead supported, rejected, or was neutral toward the strikers’ cause. They also tabulated who was quoted in each article, what position each speaker took, and how much information on teacher compensation was included.

Of fifty-nine total headlines, fifty-six were neutral toward the strike. The authors offer this Wall Street Journal example: “West Virginia Teachers Go On Statewide Strike.” The remaining three headlines favored strikers. Similarly, fifty-six of fifty-nine opening paragraphs—or leads—presented information with a neutral stance.

Deeper analysis of whom reporters chose to represent in their stories yields more nuanced results. The articles included 254 quotes from 170 different individuals. Most frequently quoted were state and local officials, who enjoyed remarkable diversity in their represented views. But while parents and students were arguably most affected by the strikes, they accounted for only five percent of the quotes. Most of those quotes (80 percent) supported the strikes, but as the authors point out, an Education Next poll at the time found only 53 percent of the public held that view. It is possible that parents, only a subset of “the public,” were this much more supportive of the strike, but the authors are skeptical. Teachers and union leaders were also disproportionately presented as pro-strikes, based on available polling data.

The authors also find that most reports inadequately communicated the full context surrounding teacher compensation. All the articles mentioned annual salaries, and 98 percent quantified those salaries. But yearly pay is only one component of teacher pay, along with health benefits, pension, and longer-than-average leave time. Nearly half the articles mentioned health benefits as a factor in the debate, although only 15 percent quantified them, and barely 3 percent quantified pension value. And no news story referenced time off during summers. Additionally, a handful of reporters compared teacher salaries to salaries in other states, but very few compared the debated salaries to the state’s own median household income.

Hess and Martin’s report comes at a time when the press, and the public, is debating news media’s place in the national discourse. Their findings highlight the hard questions that emerge as soon as we dig below the surface of “non-biased,” questions about representation and how much content and context can fit into a single news article. It is at least encouraging that so many leads, the only portion of an article that most readers choose to read anyway, presented a neutral view of the strikes.

SOURCE: Frederick M. Hess and RJ Martin, “How Did Major Newspapers Cover the 2018 Teacher Strikes?” The American Enterprise Institute (August 2018).

Jessie McBirney is a development and research associate for the Thomas B. Fordham Institute. A California native, she moved to Washington, DC, after graduating from Biola University with a bachelor's degree in political science. Most recently she worked at the Council for Christian Colleges & Universities, doing government advocacy on issues such as financial aid and college accreditation.