Study: Newspaper Coverage of Teacher Strikes Favored Pro-Strike Voices 4-to-1

Putnam City West band director Edward Hudson leads the The Oklahoma Teacher Walkout Band / Getty
August 27, 2018

A study from the conservative nonprofit American Enterprise Institute found that major newspapers heavily favored pro-union quotations when reporting on the spring 2018 teacher strikes.

AEI scholars Frederick M. Hess and RJ Martin examined 59 stories from national newspapers like The New York Times, Washington Post, and Wall Street Journal to study how they covered the series of teacher strikes that broke out in states as varied as West Virginia, Kentucky, Arizona, Colorado, and North Carolina.

Hess and Martin give newspapers credit for remaining "remarkably impartial" in both their headlines and their ledes. Of the stories analyzed, 56 of the 59 used neutral headlines and lede paragraphs compared to only three stories that used pro-strikes headlines, two stories that used pro-strike ledes, and one story that used an anti-strike lede.

But when it came to larger substance of the stories, the authors identified several areas in which newspapers favored pro-strike voices, particularly when it came to quotes from interested parties. Of the quotes included in the articles, 60 percent supported the strikes, while 26 percent were neutral and only 14 percent were anti-strike.

Newspapers also favored sources that were most likely to be supportive of the strikes over those most likely to be burdened by strikes. Teachers or union leaders provided 52 percent of quotes, 31 percent were from politicians or officials, while a measly 5 percent came from students or parents.

"This omission is striking because families were the largest group impacted by the walkouts— in Arizona alone, over 800,000 students were affected— a bore the brunt of the disruptions," the authors wrote. "Whatever families thought of the strikes, positive or negative, was obviously important." Even when quotes from parents and students did make it into print, 5/6 were supportive of the strikes."

AEI also faulted newspapers for failing to accurately report on the nature of teacher compensation. While every single story discussed teacher salaries, "less than half the articles mentioned healthcare benefits, and barely a third mentioned pensions. Just three percent of stories even obliquely referenced the value of teacher pensions, and not a single one mentioned teacher vacation time or the length of the teacher work year."

The scholars also complained the information given in most articles was not enough to allow readers to form an informed opinion. "Half the stories did not even include the pertinent average teacher salary," they noted. "Meanwhile, just 2 percent of articles compared teacher pay to the state’s median household income."