Specialist Education Journalism – a flashlight in the storm
By Sean Coughlan, BBC News education correspondent
Never before has there been so much information available at the touch of a button – and never before have there been so few specialist journalists to help make sense of it all.
Opening a screen on a laptop or a mobile phone is like opening the windows in a howling storm, you’re letting in a torrent of opinions, allegations, insights, insults, truths, half-truths, thoughtful observations and thoughtless generalisations and even some occasional facts.
And that’s just the education chat on Twitter.
Even as you’re reading this on some kind of computer screen you’ll probably be interrupted by more emails arriving, little yellow envelopes of guilt, adding to the already impossibly large numbers of emails you will never have time to read.
How can you hack through this jungle of information?
That’s where specialist journalism should help. It should help to identify the most important contours in the landscape, to show the trends that matter, to identify the voices that are saying something significant, to highlight something of value that otherwise they might have missed, to issue a weather warning of problems ahead.
It might not always be right, it might not always be relevant, but at least it’s some kind of flashlight in the storm.
But education journalists – and other specialists – have faced their own unsettled weather. There are diminishing numbers of specialist journalists and those remaining are expected to produce more than ever before. And that makes it even harder to do the things that are important to understand a specialist subject – such as going out and talking to people, researching stories that are complicated and spending time developing ideas.
Specialist journalism takes the two things that are in shortest supply, time and money.
The other tantalising side of this tidal wave of information, driven by the internet and social media, is that if you have a good story it can reach more people than ever before. Messages can reach millions in minutes. The possibilities are immense. The limits of an analogue national audience have been replaced by a vast global digital audience, whose screens might be as easily be in Shanghai and Seattle as Southampton. It’s a spectacularly big opportunity.
But there is a peculiar mismatch. While the communications industry has grown in size and complexity and the amount of information available has increased exponentially, journalism has faced increasingly meagre rations. How can communications teams get across their messages? It’s like trying to squeeze a container lorry of information into a slightly battered second-hand sports car.
So this is where the Education Journalism Awards really matter. They send a very important message. The awards raise the profile of those writing about education, they emphasise the breadth of the subject area and put it in front of a mainstream audience. It says that high quality journalism in education should be recognised and promoted.
Education has become a multi-billion industry. Schools and universities are among the country’s biggest employers. Politicians queue up to say how vital education is to the future of the economy. There is no subject closer to a parent’s heart than the well-being of their children. And there is no subject closer to their wallet when their children start talking about going to university. So there is no reason for the education sector to be shy about its significance in the news.
The Education Journalism Awards are a positive way of helping serious journalism to be taken seriously. They are a big win for everyone involved.
To enter the 2015 CIPR Education Journalism Awards which will take place Thursday 12 November at Dartmouth House, Mayfair, London, please click here (entry deadline 4th September).