How Media Coverage of Charter Schools Changed in the Past Decade
- In this analysis, we compare the tone of press coverage of charter schooling in 2005 with that in 2015.
- Charter coverage became more opinionated and more negative between 2005 and 2015.
- In 2005, 73 percent of articles were neutral and 12 percent were negative, whereas by 2015, 53 percent were neutral, and 28 percent were negative. This occurred despite public opinion of charter schools becoming dramatically more positive during that time.
- Opinion pieces made up a much larger share of charter school coverage in 2015 than in 2005. In addition, race became much more prominent in charter school coverage over time, with the share of articles that mentioned race rising from 7 percent in 2005 to 16 percent in 2015.
In a recent brief, we explored the question of how the press covers charter schooling. We found that the tenor of 2015 coverage was broadly mixed, but more negative than positive. On the whole, the analysis suggested little support for oft-heard claims that the media are strongly biased for or against charter schools.
One question raised by that analysis is whether the tenor of charter school coverage has shifted over time. After all, public opinion of charter schooling has become much more favorable over the past decade. In 2005, Gallup reported that the public supported charter schools by a relatively narrow margin of 49 to 41 percent. By 2015, support for charter schooling had ballooned to 64 to 25. In other words, the margin of support grew from 8 points in 2005 to 39 points a decade later.1 Did the media coverage reflect this shift? In the following analysis, we examine that question, comparing the tone of coverage in 2005 with that in 2015.
Coverage in 2005 and 2015
We previously analyzed articles from 2015 in national, mainstream newspapers (the New York Timesand Washington Post); education outlets (Education Week and Chalkbeat New York); online magazines (Slate and Salon); and various smaller, regional newspapers (taken from the LexisNexis database).2 In 2005, however, Chalkbeat New York did not exist, and the Slate and Salon archives for
that year were not searchable. Therefore, those three outlets are not included in the following analyses, which offer an “apples-to-apples” comparison of how the same outlets covered charter schooling in 2005 and 2015.3
For the following analysis, “coverage” was defined as news stories or opinion pieces that included the phrase “charter school” in the body or title. Stories were coded as opinion if they used first-person pronouns, made opinionated statements without quotations from interviewed sources, or had a separate author byline at the beginning or end of the article. Between 1 and 5 percent of the coverage from each outlet was sampled, depending on how many articles were written in a given year. Articles were coded on a scale of 1 to 5, with a 1 indicating the story was highly unfavorable toward charter schools (a strong, persistently negative characterization), a 3 reflecting a neutral or generally balanced tone, and a 5 being highly favorable toward charters (a strong, persistently positive depiction).4Stories were coded only if charter schools were the main focus of the article in question.
Altogether, 132 articles were coded from 2005 and 154 articles from 2015. Figure 1 shows the results.
In 2005, more than 70 percent of the articles were neutral in tone. Of the remainder, just over half were positive in their depiction of charters. In 2015, on the other hand, barely half of the articles had a neutral tone, and the remainder were more negative than positive by a margin of 28 to 19. In other words, the results suggest that coverage of charter schooling became more opinionated and more negative over time.
Was this pattern true for all the outlets examined, or was there significant variation in how the tenor of coverage changed from 2005 to 2015 in different outlets? Figure 2 reports the average score for articles from each outlet, coded on a scale of 1 to 5.
In 2005, the New York Times was the most positive of the outlets examined. The Washington Post and the sample of coverage drawn from LexisNexis sources were fairly neutral, while Education Week was mildly negative. In 2015, the general interest media (the New York Times, Washington Post, and outlets in LexisNexis) were all more negative. The outlier was the K-12 education newspaper of record,Education Week, which became noticeably more positive.
Was the generally negative trend evident in both news and opinion coverage, or was it driven
more by one or the other? Figure 3 focuses solely on the news coverage, excluding op-eds and editorials.
The share of charter school stories that were opinion pieces nearly tripled between 2005 and 2015 (from 7 percent to 19 percent). In 2005, news stories were more likely to be neutral and, when they did lean one way or the other, were as likely to be positive as negative. By 2015, news stories were substantially less likely to be neutral, and when they were not, they were more likely to be negative than positive.
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How Media Coverage of Charter Schools Changed in the Past Decade - AEI: