School news: A lesson in education reporting

11 March 2015

Some of Australia's leading voices on education and its treatment in the media gathered at the University of Sydney last night for a stimulating discussion of the often-fractious relationship between schools and the press.

The Sydney Ideas panel featured school principal and former President of the NSW Secondary Principals' Council Chris Cawsey AM, social commentator and broadcaster Jane Caro, education historian in the University of Sydney's Faculty of Education and Social Work Dr Helen Proctor, and the national education correspondent at The Australian, Justine Ferrari.

Arguing from vastly different, and at times adversarial, viewpoints, the panellists touched on such high-profile debates as teacher quality, standardised testing results, needs-based funding models, and the shift from public to private schools.

Justine Ferrari opened the dialogue from an education journalist's perspective, arguing that changes to the media milieu and a 24/7 news cycle have created a more challenging reporting environment with less scope for detailed coverage.

"Policy journalism is not the 'sexy' area of journalism. We don't win Walkley Awards. We don't even get big headlines half the time. But it's that sort of in-depth analysis of the issues that is important for public debate, and the conversation around an area as important as education," she said.

Speaking from her experience as Principal of Rooty Hill High School, Chris Cawsey stressed the need for media coverage that escapes the rhetoric of "victim or perpetrator" when reporting on students, and by extension their school environment.

"There are very few stories that describe adolescents in the complexity of their real lives," she said. "Teachers themselves are often subjected to pretty big harassment in the media, often because of government policy. We have to have someone to blame for those 40 per cent of schools that aren't going so well, so we say it's because of the teachers."

Panellist Jane Caro raised questions over what constitutes the media today, given the prevalence of social platforms, and the effect this has on schools' approaches to publicity.

"Everybody is the media, and transparency is the new black. There is no way to keep secrets anymore," she said.

The pressure on the mainstream media to publish "juicy clickbait" to entice shrinking audiences has also diluted the quality of education policy debates, she argued.

"Our incredibly complex policy around schools is in and of itself something that allows all kinds of nonsense to be put forward," Caro added.

Dr Helen Proctor grounded the discussion by pointing to her current research on the 'soft stories' found in parenting advice literature about school children, and how these influence the way education policies are publicised.

"They fuel a whole context of good and bad mothering, of parenting anxiety and also a contest which can sometimes be very productive but also very stressful around expertise and common sense," she said.

Panel chair, Professor Gerard Goggin, rounded out the event with a reminder of how important it is to understand the constantly shifting boundaries between new media modes and their intersection with the education system.

The panel, titled 'The News Cycle and Education: media, politics and public policy formation in the education sector', was co-presented by the University of Sydney's Faculty of Education and Social Work and the Department of Media and Communications.