Shemberger Essay: Education Reporting in the Civil Rights Era

Melony Shemberger, Murray State University

Southern Education Report: An Examination of a Magazine’s Contribution to Education News in the Civil Rights Era” (Journalism History, December 2019) sheds light on how one of journalism’s most important news beats, education, gained prominence through a publication’s reporting efforts during its short-lived existence.

Throughout the 20th century, the pursuit of education has been approached differently across political and social spectrums, with decisions and events from the local to state to national educational levels covered sporadically in the news media. The civil rights era raised the profile of several issues, especially topics that were pertinent to schools.

However, education as a news beat was not well established in many news organizations, according to the literature review in the scholarly article. Likewise, the historical study of education news has not been pursued extensively, despite education arguably being one of the most important news beats in journalism and a subject that affects the entire American society. Therefore, the historical development of education news is deserving of academic attention in any classroom.

To supplement the research article, this teaching essay offers several active learning approaches that could be used in journalism courses — skills or knowledge, face to face or online, graduate or undergraduate, individually or as a class — or in collaboration with other disciplines. The suggested learning activities can be modified according to an instructor’s learning objective for a module or unit.

Journalism or media history course

  • An examination of whether the mainstream news media has failed the public in education news coverage. The research article argued that the Southern Education Report covered education news that the mainstream news media failed to report. A couple learning activities could be designed. One would be a structured debate, in which students would prepare contentions supported by their research to argue in the affirmative, plus have counter-arguments on the ready. The second could be a content analysis of education news stories in a community or regional newspaper over a period of time, such as one month.
  • A study of publication design of magazines. Observations were made in the scholarly article about the cover designs of the Southern Education Report, specifically how it progressed from using abstract art to photography as the dominant image. For a brief research assignment, students in a publication or news design class could review other magazines from the 1960s to discuss the graphic design elements of the era and how those have evolved. In addition, students could argue whether design is important and how graphic design depends on the topical nature of the magazine.
  • Gender observations through bylines. Male writers dominated the pages of the Southern Education Report with their work. The names of women who wrote the articles did not appear until much later in the magazine’s history. A learning activity could involve a research exercise in which the purpose would be for students to examine gender disparities in a magazine of their choice. Students would record in a spreadsheet the gender of the writer, if known. They also could content analyze the article to determine whether the piece captures perspectives from all genders. The instructor could specify the number of magazine issues that the student should have in the research.
  • Use of older magazines as archival sources or part of special collections. An issue of the Southern Education Report was located in an archival library collection at the author’s university, leading her to examine the magazine in more detail. After learning that the magazine existed for four years, the author submitted an interlibrary loan request to obtain all the editions of the Southern Education Report, with all four bound volumes coming from a research university’s special collections unit. Older magazines and similar publications lend historical research opportunities for textual and content analyses. Instructional guidance should emphasize the significance of such material as rich subjects to study.

Journalism skills course

  • Comparison between education issues of the civil rights era and education issues of the 21st century. Writers for the Southern Education Report focused on desegregation, poverty, literacy and other issues arising during the mid- to late 1960s. What issues in education are reported 50 years later? How could these inform a newsroom’s editorial agenda? These questions can serve as discussion board prompts, story planning assignments or essays to prime a module or unit on education reporting.
  • Discussion and analysis of the news writing or storytelling approaches. Articles in the Southern Education Report were written mostly as feature or enterprise news stories that used the Wall Street Journal formula or sections technique. Hard news stories in the inverted pyramid format were rare in the magazine. Nevertheless, the articles in the 1960s magazine can serve as prime examples for students to use in learning to practice writing in-depth or feature stories. The articles can strengthen an instructor’s learning guidance to demonstrate how these kinds of stories remain relevant for news consumers in the 21st century.

 Collaborations with other courses

  • Opportunities with education faculty and classes. The article focused on education news, which could present possible collaborations with education courses in foundations and/or issues. A seminar about education then and now could be planned for campus and community involvement, team-teaching of education and journalism classes could be planned, or learning materials could be shared.
  • Partnership with history courses. Since this article focused on an aspect of journalism history during the civil rights era, an instructor could work with a colleague in the history department who might be teaching a civil rights course to design a lesson about the media’s involvement and coverage of related topics, such as education, during this important period in U.S. history.

Featured image: Integrated students at Anacostia High School, 1957, by Washington Area Spark (CC BY-NC 2.0)

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