Actual educators should be part of the conversation about education in the news media

March 01, 2015 by Guest Contributor

Consider this: would an airplane enthusiast who has taken hundreds of photos of aircraft be a good expert source on aviation, even if he has never been a pilot? He can describe airplanes and even share opinions on his favorite, but would that make him qualified to be quoted as an expert source in a news story or a policy debate?

Which leads me to my next question: does an education expert source need to be an actual educator? A new study by researchers at the University of Illinois puts the spotlight on an issue I’ve long observed in mainstream news media, including major online outlets: the majority of people used as sources or cited as experts on education are not actual experts in the field, but they tend to be more media savvy and are often used repeatedly.

Joel R. Malin and Christopher Lubienski published a study in the most recent issue of the journal Education Policy Analysis Archives and they “hypothesize that media impact is loosely coupled with educational expertise.”

The study, titled “Educational Expertise, Advocacy, and Media Influence,” analyzed print and online media outlets, including those that focus exclusively on education and found that the “people most often cited as ‘education experts’ in blogs and news stories may have the backing of influential organizations – but have little background in education and education policy.”

”While many may like to think that expertise on an issue in question is an essential prerequisite for influence in public policy discussions, there is a traditional disconnect between research evidence and policymaking in many fields, including education. Moreover, the efforts of many policy advocates suggest that they see advantages in other factors besides research expertise in advancing their interpretation of evidence for use in policymaking processes. We hypothesize that some of the most influential education-focused organizations are advancing their agendas by engaging media and drawing on individuals who possess substantial media acumen, yet may not possess traditionally defined educational expertise. Thus, we hypothesize that media impact is loosely coupled with educational expertise. In fact, in analyzing various indicators of expertise and media penetration, we find a weak relationship between expertise and media impact, but find significantly elevated media penetration for individuals working at a sub-sample of organizations promoting what we term ‘incentivist’ education reforms, in spite of their generally lower levels of expertise. We find these organizations are particularly effective in engaging new media forms by going directly to their audience. We consider the policy implications in the concluding discussion.”

Perhaps the most concerning finding from Malin and Lubienski is that the possession of a doctoral degree was associated with 67 percent fewer blog citations and 60 percent fewer newspaper mentions, which indicates that academic researchers with empirical expertise in education are often far removed from popular and policy conversations in the news media and popular blogs.

“Researchers who want to see their work have impact beyond the academic community must become more adept at communicating via traditional and new media. Otherwise, policy changes in education will be guided more by ideology and agendas than by research,” Malin and Lubienski wrote.

Actual educators should be part of the conversation about education in the news media and in high profile blogs; it’s that simple. As a consumer of news you should pay thoughtful attention to the qualifications of the sources used, especially when analyzing public policy issues. It is time to hold reporters and bloggers accountable for the qualifications of ‘expert’ sources.

If you are a journalist covering an education-focused story, I invite you to tap into the vast expertise of faculty members in the School of Education at Brandman University. You can contact the media team by email at for assistance.


Joe-CockrellAbout the author
Joe Cockrell is the former Vice Chancellor of Communications and Chief Communications Officer at Brandman University. A former journalist, he serves as the primary spokesperson for the university and manages the news bureau.

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