Lori Dorfman

Lori Dorfman of the Berkeley Media Studies Group

School’s out for the summer. But that apparent distinction – school versus no school – is not so distinct. All year long, what happens in neighborhoods affects schools, which in turns affects what happens in neighborhoods – and beyond.

Consider one example: violence. Students can’t learn in unsafe schools or when they are traumatized from exposure to violence outside the classroom. Research is clear that violence disrupts the social networks crucial for maintaining supportive learning environments. The students feel it with stress, anxiety and fear. They can’t concentrate. They might miss school. They miss out on learning.

Our whole society feels the effects of violence with depressed graduation rates, students’ unrealized potential and lost productivity. Most immediately, the effects of violence are felt in the schools by students, teachers, principals and volunteers.

Rachel Davis of the Prevention Institute

Rachel Davis of the Prevention Institute

If we want to do something about how violence shapes the climate of a school, and vice versa, how do we learn about it?

News coverage can help.

News is the baseline of our public conversation. It’s easy to ignore issues the news doesn’t spotlight, and hard to turn away from what is in its glare.

It’s important, then, how the link between schools and violence is told by news outlets. The questions reporters ask, and the connections they make in their stories, reveal the context around violence, and around schools. When journalists started regularly reporting whether drivers and passengers were wearing seatbelts in news about car crashes, that small bit of information in stories helped establish a new norm of seatbelt wearing. Reporters could do the same for schools and violence, but only if they connect the two.

This spring, with support from the Northern California Kaiser Permanente Community Benefit Department, Berkeley Media Studies Group examined news coverage in California, asking the question, “Do discussions about or depictions of community violence and safety appear in education stories?” To find out, we examined education stories from five major California newspapers: the Contra Costa Times, The Sacramento Bee, the Los Angeles Times, the San Jose Mercury News and the San Francisco Chronicle. We looked for themes that research has shown link education to violence or community safety.

For example, education stories sometimes report on high school dropout rates. Failure to complete high school is a risk factor for economic instability and contact with the criminal justice system, so ensuring that students graduate is one way that the education system can improve community safety. A news article reporting on high school graduation rates might make that connection to violence explicitly, or it might not.

Our goal was to show how education reporting might contribute to greater understanding about the link between community violence and safety and education outcomes. News coverage making those links explicit could help policymakers, educators and the public see how our education system could either alleviate or exacerbate violence.

We found that only a few education stories explicitly discussed violence and its impact on students, especially young men of color. But more than 40% of the education stories in our study touched on themes that reporters could connect to violence prevention and community safety: themes like mental health and school discipline, and conditions like poverty and homelessness, that make it harder to educate students.

We saw many stories about systemic education issues that could force students out of school, or help them succeed, with implications for students’ economic success and, ultimately, for community safety. For example, we found stories about educational opportunities, such as discounted community college tuition for low-income students, that could increase school retention rates. Students with college degrees are more likely to succeed in the workforce and less likely to be involved in crime and violence.

The connection between well-educated students and a more productive, safer society is likely obvious to educators. But those who don’t regularly read the research or consider the implications need to be reminded of those links.

We need news coverage that explicitly connects education with student and community safety in the same story, so our policymakers can see those connections, their consequences for our society, and the impact of our education system outside of schools. News is a key way legislators learn about issues. To make the connection explicit in education stories, reporters will have to talk to sources outside of criminal justice – currently the most prominent voices in news stories about violence. A broader range of sources can reveal how the education system affects everyone, from students to school superintendents to the broader community.

Without a multi-sector approach that includes education’s role in community safety, we perpetuate systems that shortchange students and undermine communities. A well-functioning education system – from preschool to higher education – would reduce violence because students would graduate from high school and be more likely to succeed at work. Perhaps most importantly, they’d be more invested in the future of their communities and be better prepared to participate in the democratic process.

We need news stories about innovative schools that have opened their doors to community groups to share spaces like playgrounds and gyms, so that young people have safe places to be during non-school hours.

We need to understand how schools have adopted trauma-informed and restorative justice practices, improving school attendance and closing the achievement gap between white students and students of color. Examples abound of schools that are fostering positive climates through violence-prevention programs both in the classroom and after school, solidifying connections to family and community in the process.

News coverage that makes the link explicit between education and community safety can help counter the consequences of disinvestment and neglect. We need reporters, producers, editors and bloggers to dig deeper and show us how education can help transform all our communities into safe and thriving places for everyone.

We can do better, but only if we have better information.

•••

Lori Dorfman directs Berkeley Media Studies Group, a project of the Public Health Institute. Rachel Davis is managing director of the Oakland-based Prevention Institute.

The opinions expressed in this commentary represent solely those of the author. EdSource welcomes commentaries representing diverse points of view. If you would like to submit a commentary, please review our guidelines and contact us.

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  1. Parent News Opinion 4 years ago4 years ago

    I agree with the notion that news needs not to be shaped.

    I instead believe exciting articles can be written about positive insights with regard to educating all on how to cope with all things that have to do with violence.

    Let the reporters write freely!

  2. Gary Ravani 4 years ago4 years ago

    Good luck in your endeavors, ladies. For years the evidence has been clear that there are direct connections between high levels of poverty and low elves of student achievement and graduation rates. And the evidence is also clear that the impacts of poverty disproportionally affect minorities. Does the news media cover that with any kind of responsibility? Not on your life. Two drivers of media coverage create these distortions: 1) the "narrative"; and 2) the … Read More

    Good luck in your endeavors, ladies.

    For years the evidence has been clear that there are direct connections between high levels of poverty and low elves of student achievement and graduation rates. And the evidence is also clear that the impacts of poverty disproportionally affect minorities. Does the news media cover that with any kind of responsibility? Not on your life. Two drivers of media coverage create these distortions: 1) the “narrative”; and 2) the attempt at “balance.” Interestingly, the New York Times public ombudsperson has attempted to un-rap these tendencies, but with little evident impact to this point.

    In the “narrative,” the media gloms onto some story line that seems dramatic enough to keep the public’s attention. Then they find a series of anecdotes that seems to support the narrative. A perfect example of this, that particularly disgraced the NYT, was the “evidence” collected showing Iraq had WMDs. The Times went with every alarming bit of information that emerged…from the Administration at that time. It turned out the WMDs were quite scary and scary generates readership, and then evidence came forth that the Administration, as well as Britain, was “fixing intelligence” to support the assertion. The NYT had a reporter with inside access to the Administration and they kept feeding her the misinformation. Even today, in education issues, the NYT editorial pages continue to spew the blather on test based accountability and charter school efficacy that the self-styled reformers put out by the bushel.

    In the false “balance” syndrome the media feels compelled to get the testimony of an expert in a field and then balance it with testimony from someone with an opposite opinion no matter how bizarre. Hence we get educational reporting that cites a legitimate academic expert or study and then it is refuted, in a blazing case of false equivalency, by someone from the “schools sucks industry.”

    As I said the NYT ombudsperson has tried, with little evident success, to deal with these issues. There is, the ombudsperson asserts, an obligation on the side of the media to do some triage and exercise some judgment when reporting or even editorializing. Facts and evidence should be emphasized and speculation and bombast revealed for what it is.

    I hope you can get the media to deal with violence, its traumatic effects, and how those effects impacts schools and student achievement. You’re pros in your field, but I suspect you have an uphill battle ahead.

  3. Richard Cohen 4 years ago4 years ago

    As part of a team of restorative justice advocates and practitioners, I have observed over and over again, for the past 8 years, the effects of trauma from homes and neighborhoods on student motivation and classroom behavior. As the authors recite in their article, the research is clear, trauma contributes to school pushout and lower achievement. As far as a journalist duty is concerned, journalist have the duty to bring to the public view connections … Read More

    As part of a team of restorative justice advocates and practitioners, I have observed over and over again, for the past 8 years, the effects of trauma from homes and neighborhoods on student motivation and classroom behavior. As the authors recite in their article, the research is clear, trauma contributes to school pushout and lower achievement. As far as a journalist duty is concerned, journalist have the duty to bring to the public view connections between precieved causes of violence and the results, reporting violent facts and reporting the causing of violence can not be ignored. When lowered school performance levels are at stake, it is incompetent reporting to not examine the causes of these low performance levels.

  4. navigio 4 years ago4 years ago

    While I could not agree more with the goal, there are two problems with this. The first is that 'news' should be just that. Not a tool for manipulating public thought process. Second, there is large disagreement among the public on what impact this violent environment truly has, as well as what exactly is the cause of that. Because of that disagreement, any attempt to shine a light on one side of that divide will … Read More

    While I could not agree more with the goal, there are two problems with this. The first is that ‘news’ should be just that. Not a tool for manipulating public thought process. Second, there is large disagreement among the public on what impact this violent environment truly has, as well as what exactly is the cause of that. Because of that disagreement, any attempt to shine a light on one side of that divide will exacerbate the extent to which ‘news’ is perceived as manipulative. That lessens its value.
    On a related note, there is a TON of research out there, not all of it good. I can cite pretty much anything to support a ‘view’ and if the story is about something other than the research, there is no space to evaluate the research in that context. Perhaps what we need to do instead is have better coverage and discussion about those studies themselves, independent of ‘stories’ they might seem to be supporting ‘evidence’ for. My $0.02.

    Replies

    • Don 4 years ago4 years ago

      Great comment, Navigio. This article is a head-scratcher and a black mark on Ed Source for running it. There's news and there's commentary. Good professional reporters know the difference and are diligent to distinguish not conflate the two, as far as is humanly possible. These reporters are espousing the manipulation of news and that's disgraceful. I could posit that the omnipresent divorce rate drives more underperformance compared to inner city violence based upon reams of … Read More

      Great comment, Navigio.

      This article is a head-scratcher and a black mark on Ed Source for running it. There’s news and there’s commentary. Good professional reporters know the difference and are diligent to distinguish not conflate the two, as far as is humanly possible. These reporters are espousing the manipulation of news and that’s disgraceful.

      I could posit that the omnipresent divorce rate drives more underperformance compared to inner city violence based upon reams of research on the emotional and psychological trauma to children. But divorce is not part of the social justice narrative to highlight race relations.

      The approach of these two “reporters” should be held up as an example of the demise in journalism.