Guest column: The diversity gap in education reporting must close

The Education Writers Association’s State of the Beat report found disturbing news for the coverage of education: just 22 percent of full-time journalists on the education beat are journalists of color. Clearly, the demographics of the professionals reporting on our schools and colleges do not reflect the diversity of the nation, where half of public school students are nonwhite, as is nearly 40 percent of the adult population.

This reality means that, despite the best of intentions and research, the critically important issue of education is being reported through a limited lens. We are sending journalists into communities they do not come from, increasing the possibility that we exclude crucial voices from the conversation. The result is that news outlets may be missing important perspectives about America’s students and their schools.

At a time when the independent news media is under the microscope, what we deem worthy to report — and how we report it — must be examined through a critical and inclusive lens. Language and perspective are essential to getting the story right and building trust in the communities we serve. When we get the story wrong, the damage can’t be undone with an editor’s note.

The diversity gap in education journalism reflects a much larger problem that newsrooms have been struggling to address for years. Indeed, the American Society of News Editors found that, from 2007 to 2015, the number of non-white journalists in U.S. newsrooms dropped from 7,400 to 4,200, roughly the same number as in 1989. If the news industry’s collective goal is to create newsrooms that mirror America, we’re falling shamefully short — and the problem extends well beyond the education beat.  

Yet for EWA, an organization dedicated to strengthening the community of education writers and improving the quality of education coverage to better inform the public, our diversity gap is not something we could ignore. We knew EWA needed to make this disparity a priority, and that with more than 3,000 members, we had the reach to start making a difference.

That’s why the EWA board of directors appointed a task force to lead us through a months-long process culminating in a comprehensive plan to increase diversity and inclusion in our organization. This plan, which the board approved just last month, will touch every aspect of our work, from how we build a board, design member programs, and foster new organizational partnerships, to how we encourage newsrooms to examine their own hiring practices. We aim to foster an inclusive culture and open doors for diverse perspectives, to improve the work for our members and the communities we serve.

As committed as we are, though, neither EWA, nor the education journalism community we represent, can do this alone. We need others who care about high-quality coverage of education to recognize the value of diversifying the education beat.

We are calling on all newsroom leaders, including editors-in-chief and editorial boards, to help by pushing to recruit and retain journalists of color; examining the lens through which they see stories; and ensuring that newsroom cultures are truly inclusive.

For our part, EWA will push toward a future where the education beat’s diversity gap is closed and all education reporters approach each subject with empathy and understanding. Where all of our best intentions are reflected in policy and practice. And where education coverage more fully reflects our nation’s communities and communicates their truths.

  • Greg Toppo

    Greg Toppo is an education writer for USA Today and president, Education Writers Association board of directors.

  • Francisco Vara-Orta

    Francisco Vara-Orta is a data specialist and staff writer at Education Week; and vice president (Journalists), Education Writers Association Board of Directors.

  • Dakarai Aarons

    Dakarai Aarons is Vice President of Strategic Communications for the Data Quality Campaign; and Vice President (Community Members), Education Writers Association Board of Directors.

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