Blog: The Educated Reporter

Covering Diversity: Reporting on Skills, Not ‘Deficits’

Dorinda Carter Andrews (MSU)

According to U.S. Department of Education projections, for the first time, black, Hispanic, Asian and other non-white students made up just over 50 percent of public school students. And that share is expected to increase in the coming years.

So, what does this mean for the nation’s public school teachers (who are still overwhelmingly white)? And what does that mean for the journalists who report on them?

The stakes are high, according to Dorinda Carter Andrews, associate professor at Michigan State University’s Department of Teacher Education, the recipient of a 2014 “Early Career” award from the American Education Research Association. Students’ ability to master content is connected to their relationships with teachers, not separate, Carter Andrews said.

“A lot of our achievement and opportunity gaps are built around cultural difference,” said Carter Andrews at EWA’s seminar on teaching in Detroit last month.

When teachers ignore racial and other cultural differences, in favor of a post-racial ‘colorblindness,’ she says, they risk harboring what are known as “deficit mindsets” — a focus on what students can’t do that is often influenced by racial and other stereotypes and biases that are often unconscious. The same is  true for reporters when they interact with teachers and enter their classrooms to tell stories about them, Carter Andrews said.

“As education reporters, you have to ask yourselves, ‘How have I thought about the personal lenses I bring and how they shape the ways in which I see the story, see the context, and then narrate and write it?’ ” Carter Andrews said.

Carter Andrews suggested that reporters spend time identifying what preconceived notions they might have about the teachers and students they cover and actively work to put them aside when they write stories about them. This means paying close attention to choices in language (and pushing for necessary changes within newsrooms and with editors). Are students “handicapped” or “differently abled”?  Are they “minorities” or “students of color”?  Are they “limited English proficient” or are they “second language learners”?

But reporters’ responsibilities extend beyond the words in print, she suggested. Being conscious of their own biases, said Carter Andrews, changes how reporters find and report stories.

She suggested that reporters consider economic, environmental, and historical context when researching and interviewing sources for stories about teachers who work with academically struggling students. Journalists should identify the many issues found within schools, but resist labeling teachers and students solely by those challenges.

During the reporting and writing process, Carter Andrews says journalists should:

  • Consider whether they are attributing problems only to students and their families.
  • Ask whether there are institutional or systemic factors at play that affect the issues about which they are writing and include them in the story.
  • Honestly examine their own work for excessive use of “deficit language,” or a solitary focus on what teachers, kids, and schools can’t do, while ignoring what they can do.

Entering a classroom with this kind of awareness, Carter Andrews said, will help journalists produces richer, fuller, more nuanced tales of the struggle (and the success that often follows) to educate kids.