Every Friday, I write an article that links to all the education news I’ve seen cross my desk during the previous week. Ostensibly, it’s with an eye to education technology, but you cannot talk about education technology without situating its promotion and adoption in the politics of education more broadly. I’m not sure how useful the “Hack Education Weekly News” is to readers, but I do it anyway, as it’s a crucial part of the research that goes into my annual look at the “Top Ed-Tech Trends.”
With this undertaking, I consume a lot of education and technology journalism. And while I’m interested in the stories that are told – these help me see what are some of the larger narratives taking shape about the future of education – I’m also fascinated by what remains untold. Which publications, for example, consistently fail to report on which stories?
I think it’s important to recognize that a fair number of education outlets and almost all the education technology and technology press are trade publications. That means that some of the journalistic practices that we expect to see in the media – avoiding financial conflicts of interest, most notably – aren’t really principles that are tightly held by these publications. (Nor are these principles tightly held by other new forms of media, including many blogs.)
The Atlantic’s Alexis Madrigal wrote about trade publications back in 2011 when news broke that Mike Arrington, founder of the tech industry blog Techcrunch, had become a venture capitalist (and would therefore be investing in the very companies that his publication frequently covered):
Many websites are functioning largely as trade magazines that occasionally commit acts of journalism. TechCrunch, and Mashable to an even greater extent, are more like the new American Thresherman and Farm Power or Stone World or Successful Farming than they are the new New York Times. But it’s hard to know when they’re acting like the Times and when they are acting like Plumbing and Mechanical Magazine.
Even the news that they break would generally come out via a press release in due time. People care about what they write, and they beat other people to the information, but the scoops are fundamentally benign. (This company got some money, that company has a new app, another may do something that alters the competitive landscape.) Trade magazines have been doing this kind of thing for as long as there have been trade and magazines.
Madrigal’s concerns here are largely ethical concerns: what are the implications of this sort of new (?) journalistic ethics –particularly as the tech industry becomes increasingly powerfully economically, politically, culturally? It’s an ethics, he points out, that argues that any sort of financial conflict of interest is alright as long as there’s transparency – a disclosure note at the bottom of s story, for example.
This sort of transparency is pretty weak. (I try to track on this, in part, with a Twitter account that notes failure in ed-tech publications to disclose their financial ties in stories.) Disclosure do not always happen. And if they are included in the footer of a story, that rarely translates onto social media where people only see headlines.
But I’m also interested in what’s undisclosed because of what goes unpublished. Some of this, obviously, is about editorial decision-making. Some of it is about the writers’ interests and knowledge of the sector. No one person and no one publication can be comprehensive. There are always things that get left out. I’m still interested in thinking about why that happens – again, particularly as ed-tech publications are primarily industry mouthpieces.