February 22, 2022

Researchers have been churning out a flood of worthwhile studies lately on what audiences want in their news diet. A particularly provocative one arrived last week — a sample of several thousand parents to find what information they want on schools compared with what actually gets covered.

Parents, the report by Jesse Holcomb and his team at Calvin College found, show only modest interest in such national issues as race in the curriculum or school choice. Rather they are squarely focused on learning — which has been greatly complicated the last two years by COVID-19’s disruption of normal in-person instruction.

A second headline finding: Black and Hispanic parents are more, rather than less interested than white parents in local education news. Their interests skew even more heavily toward the practical, including schools’ role in providing nutritious meals. Black and Hispanic parents surveyed were also more likely to satisfy their information needs from local media as opposed to informal networks, white parents the reverse.

The report is worth a read and was well-summarized in a Nieman Lab article. I chatted by email with Holcomb, a friend since his days as deputy director of Pew Research Center’s journalism, about the implications of his findings.

Was it a surprise to find Black parents more interested in education news, I asked. Not really, Holcomb said.

“Our survey is not actually the first to find this. A 2015 American Press Institute survey revealed a similar trend. In our Pew case studies of local news interest from 2015, we found that in the cities we surveyed, white adults were less likely than other groups to follow local and neighborhood news closely.

“So, the finding is even less surprising given that this is a survey not just of U.S. adults, but of parents who have kids in school. For Black parents, the stakes are especially high. Issues related to school inequality are widely known and I won’t rehash here, but to underscore, our survey reiterates that Black parents are less likely than white parents to give their local schools a good grade, and in addition, they are more likely to report that their child’s school had been closed through much of the previous academic year. If information is one tool for these parents to help their kids succeed, it stands to reason they’ll be paying close attention.

“The bigger takeaway in my view is that Black parents are working harder to stay informed, yet for their effort, are feeling less knowledgeable than white parents about what’s going on in schools. And I see that as a failure on the part of communicators inside and outside of the news media.”

The study, sponsored by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, was prompted by the COVID-19 disruptions. The first round of the survey was near the start of the pandemic, in spring 2020, with a second round in August 2021.

Given that timing, I was curious if Holcomb felt that the survey anticipated parents’ anger at extended school closings. That anger turned out to be the paramount factor in Glenn Youngkin’s surprise victory in the Virginia governor’s race in November and one among several reasons for the landslide recall of three San Francisco school board members last week.

“I’m loath to weigh in on San Francisco politics from my vantage point in West Michigan,” Holcomb wrote. “And public opinion is multi-faceted and complex on this issue. But a recent CNN poll captured the national mood well, I think. People care about the broad benefits of education in society and in their family’s life. Few are laser-focused on issues that have dominated national discourse, such as history curriculum and critical race theory. And that’s reflected in our study to the extent that parents say that the key issues they want to stay informed about are how to keep their children learning and thriving, healthy and safe in the school system.”

I also wondered whether the preference for the practical might extend to other local news beats. Holcomb replied:

“Absolutely. I think the signals we’re getting about K-12 education are analogous to all kinds of local issues that affect peoples’ lives on a day-to-day basis. This doesn’t mean people don’t care about or benefit from other types of journalism by any means. But it does suggest that when it comes to hyperlocal community issues, political drama and discourse takes something of a backseat to the everyday issues people are dealing with.”

A decade ago, the University of Southern California launched a novel experimental digital startup called The Alhambra Project. Faculty went into the small working-class suburb — a news desert of sorts — ringed by Los Angeles. Their design heavily involved citizens in deciding the focus of coverage.

Michael Parks, the late USC journalism dean who directed the project, told me then that one of the strongest findings was that residents were much less interested in the city’s changing demographics, language differences and politics than in prosaic issues like parking and garbage pickup.

The trilingual Alhambra Source published through November 2020, when financial problems forced closure.

I don’t think the Alhambra study or Holcomb’s implies stepping back from investigative and accountability reporting so much as finding room too for less glamorous work on everyday concerns.

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Rick Edmonds is media business analyst for the Poynter Institute where he has done research and writing for the last fifteen years. His commentary on…
Rick Edmonds

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