For education news — and other local news, too — consider keeping it practical

Recently, researchers have been conducting a wealth of useful research on what audiences want in their diet news. Particularly provocative emerged last week – a sample of several thousand parents to find out what information they want about schools compared to what is actually covered.

Parents, according to a report by Jesse Holcomb and his team from Calvin College, show only modest interest in national issues such as race in the curriculum or school choice. They are more focused on learning – which has become very complicated in the last two years due to violations of COVID-19 routine personal training.

The second headline: Black and Hispanic parents are more or less interested in local educational news than white parents. Their interests are even more inclined towards the practical, including the role of schools in providing nutritious food. Respondent black and Hispanic parents were also more likely to meet their information needs from local media rather than informal networks, and white parents were the opposite.

The report is worth reading and was well summarized in the Nieman Lab article. I spoke by e-mail with Holcomb, a friend from the time he was deputy director of journalism at the Pew Research Center, about the implications of his findings.

Was it a surprise to find that black parents are more interested in educational news, I asked. Not quite, Holcomb said.

“Our poll isn’t really the first to find out. A 2015 U.S. Institute of the Press poll found a similar trend. In our Pew case study on interest in local news in 2015, we found that in the cities we surveyed, white adults were less likely than other groups to closely monitor local and neighborhood news.

“Thus, the conclusion is even less surprising, given that this is a survey not only of US adults but also of parents with whom children study. For black parents, the stakes are especially high. The problems associated with school inequality are well known, and I will not retell here, but to emphasize, our survey reiterates that black parents are less likely than white parents to give their local schools good grades, and in addition, they are more are likely to give reports that their child’s school was closed for most of the previous school year. If information is one of the tools for these parents to help their children succeed, there is a reason they will pay close attention.

“In my opinion, the main thing is that black parents work harder to stay informed, but for their efforts they feel less than whites are aware of what is happening in schools. And I see it as a failure on the part of communicators in the media and beyond. “

The study, supported by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, was caused by failures due to COVID-19. The first round of the survey was close to the beginning of the pandemic, in the spring of 2020, and the second round – in August 2021.

Given this time, I wondered if Holcomb felt the poll predicted parents ’anger at the prolonged school closure. That anger proved to be a major factor in Glenn Youngkin’s unexpected victory in the Virginia governor’s race in November and one of several reasons for the collapse of three San Francisco school board members last week.

“I’m sorry to consider San Francisco’s policies from my point of view in Western Michigan,” Holcomb wrote. “And public opinion on this issue is multifaceted and complex. But a recent CNN poll well captured national sentiment, I think. People care about the broad benefits of education in society and in the lives of their families. Few focus on issues that have dominated national discourse, such as the history curriculum and critical race theory. And this is reflected in our study to the extent that parents say the key issues they want to be aware of are how to keep their children who are learning and thriving healthy and safe in the school system. ”

I also wondered if the advantage could practically extend to other local news. Holcomb replied:

“Absolutely. I think the signals we get about K-12 education are similar to all kinds of local issues that affect people’s lives day in and day out. This does not mean that people do not care about other types of journalism and do not use them. But it shows that when it comes to the problems of the hyperlocal community, political drama and discourse take a back seat compared to the everyday problems that people face. ”

Ten years ago, the University of Southern California launched a new experimental digital startup called The Alhambra Project. The teachers went to a small working-class suburb – a kind of news desert – surrounded by Los Angeles. Their development actively involved citizens in determining the focus of coverage.

Michael Parks, the late dean of USC journalism who led the project, told me at the time that one of the strongest findings was that residents were much less interested in changing the city’s demographics, language differences and policies than prose issues such as parking and garbage collection .

The trilingual Alhambra Source came out until November 2020, when financial problems forced it to close.

I don’t think Alhambra or Holcomb’s research implies a departure from investigation and reporting, as well as finding a place for less glamorous work on everyday issues.

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