Who Produces the Educational Research Mentioned in the News Media?

In an analysis of education articles published in The New York Times, Washington Post, and Education Week, Holly Yettick of the University of Colorado at Boulder finds that any given think tank report was substantially more likely to be cited than any given study studies produced by a university.

Her study of 864 articles shows that

1. Education Week most often cited university-based research, while The New York Times and The Washington Post most often cited research produced by governmental entities.

2. Although university and government sources were cited more often, a higher percentage of reports produced by advocacy-oriented think tanks were cited by both types of publications. Universities produce 14 to 16 times more research than think tanks, but the three publications only mentioned their studies twice as often as think tank reports.

Given these findings, Yettick recommends that education reporters and editors adopt the following guidelines when writing about educational research:

• Expand your source list. The findings of this study suggest that think tank research is over-represented in media coverage. Unlike think tank employees, university professors generally lack the incentives and resources to conduct public relations campaigns involving outreach to journalists. However, many would like their research to reach the public. Like their science- or medical reporting peers, education reporters should consult peer-reviewed research and cultivate university researchers, who should be able to recommend major, peer-reviewed studies in their fields.

• If you do decide that a think tank study merits recognition, do your own quality control. Vet reports before publishing. Most research reports will not lose news value during the time taken to verify their soundness. A good method of conducting such verification is to consult with a trustworthy person with expertise in research design and statistics. … In addition, consult subject matter specialists, ideally those who have read the report. If the reporter is only able to consult subject-matter experts who have not read the report, note this in the article, helping readers understand that the study’s findings should be taken with caution until experts have had time to fully review the results.

• Include full disclosure. Regardless of who produced the study, the article should link to the full report so readers can judge for themselves. Non-peer reviewed research should also be labeled as such.

Update: Read Kevin Carey’s response in The Chronicle

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4 Responses to Who Produces the Educational Research Mentioned in the News Media?

  1. Gary Robbins says:

    There’s another reason that think tanks get more press coverage. Broadly speaking, their news releases tend to be clearer, better written. They get to the point. I receive dozens of college and university news releases each day. The majority are so badly done — and incomplete — that you have to stop and spend extra time to figure out what’s actually being said. If anything is being said at all.

    Gary Robbins, science editor
    The Orange County Register

    • paul says:

      Hi Gary. You make a painfully accurate observation. One would think that communicators in higher education would have figured it out by now. So how can this be turned around? What’s the root cause? I see a couple of possibilities.

      (1) In some cases authors of press releases and reports have really good subject-matter knowledge but no training in journalism. Some pieces you see are written by researchers who instinctively and habitually write for their peers and funding agencies. In some cases they send out releases without thinking through the process of engaging a general audience. That’s a difficult problem to solve.

      But there are good models to follow. Some of the clearest science writing I’ve seen comes by way of magazines like Archaeology and Astronomy and the Smithsonian. Some of their articles are drafted by scientists and edited by professionals. Others are written by professional writers in dialogue with scientists. The key in this case would be to encourage scientists to collaborate with non-specialists before releasing material intended for the general public. When they have a well trained news bureau on campus, there’s no excuse for not using them.

      (2.) If, on the other hand, the bad stuff is written by professional communicators, that’s really scary. Sometimes it’s the case that a professional editor improves on the scientist’s draft, only to be told that “no, that can’t be changed.” But effective communicators in higher ed know how to deal with such roadblocks. As an example of good science communication I would point (not surprisingly) to the material produced by the news team here at UW-Madison. http://www.news.wisc.edu/

      Because we’re a big research university, we can afford a large and well-trained news staff. We’re fortunate. Smaller institutions with one- or two-person shops don’t have the same resources. Their news staff are probably inundated with work and wear many hats: managing events, communicating on behalf of admissions and fund raising, etc. But that of course is not an excuse for sending out pieces that fail to communicate.

      I’m really glad you brought this up. You could do me (and everyone) a big favor by calling attention (here, or elsewhere) to reports and releases that are particularly well done. I always enjoy seeing good models and best practices.

      Paul

  2. Leonard Waks says:

    The biggest problem is not that ed researchers write for their peers. Rather, the culture of ed research encourages mediocrity. Trendy fads and even obscurantist movements (such as postmodernism) dominate humanities based work. Meaningless questions, often driven by misguided policy mandates (such as NCLB) dominate work grounded in psychology and the social sciences. Only a few top-of-the-line scholars escape from the constraints of this peer culture.

    • paul says:

      Thanks, Leonard. I know that the Hechinger Institute works to address this problem on both ends of the communication spectrum: It offers workshops for young academics in education to give them experience writing articles and op-ed pieces about their work in layman’s language for publication in mainstream media, while giving education reporters extensive training writing about complex policy issues. Richard Colvin has many years experience as an education reporter and is now bridging the gap between media and the academy. If only he could be cloned.

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