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Education journalism rating site launches with vow of neutrality

A new website that will rate national and local news coverage of education issues — funded and run by advocates of school choice — launched this morning with vows from its publisher and editors to stay impartial.

Published by the Center for Education Reform, the Media Bullpen‘s stated goal is to promote better education journalism by judging news stories on their accuracy, balance and context, and to give readers additional information about the underlying issues.

The Center for Education Reform is a Washington, D.C.-based non-profit that promotes charter schools and vouchers. The Media Bullpen site is also backed by funders — like the Gates, Walton, Bradley and Gleason Foundations — that have traditionally supported choice-based models of school reform.

The backers’ clear ideological origins earned raised eyebrows from journalists in December and January after the CER posted a preview of the site and began recruiting editors who, in the words of the job notice, both practiced sound journalistic ethics and held a “passion for education reform.” (The phrase “education reform,” though claimed by various groups, has been most closely associated with those that favor charter schools and are critical of teachers unions.)

But Jeanne Allen, the president of CER, said that though she will be the site’s publisher, it will have editorial independence from its parent advocacy organization.

“We don’t want folks who think they know the answer,” Allen said in an interview yesterday. “At CER, we think we know the answer, but that’s not what this is about.”

An executive editor, Donna Sapolin, and a managing editor, Ben Tyree, will run the site. Sapolin was most recently a media consultant and before that served as editor-at-large at the online magazine FLYP. She has spent most of her career in magazines, including a stint as editor-in-chief of This Old House and as editorial director of a group of home, garden, food and lifestyle magazines. Tyree has worked for more than 25 years on the opinion section of the conservative Washington Times, most recently as its chief editor.

CER has also hired an educational consultant, Barbara Pate, for the site. Pate has a master’s in education and is pursuing a doctorate in educational leadership. She also was editor and publisher of the Daily Report Card, an online educational newsletter published in the 1990s by a bipartisan federal educational panel.

In addition to the three core staff, the site is hiring a team of around 10 to rate and review news stories.

This morning, the site included ratings for 90 stories, though that number will grow throughout the day. Allen said that the site would rate hundreds of stories each day. Right now the site aggregates only stories from newspapers and broadcast outlets and their websites, though Allen said newsy blogs like GothamSchools may eventually be included.

Stories are graded on a six-point baseball-themed scale, granting “home runs” to stories that are “clear and accurate,” use information “in the correct way,” and which “give insight into an issue.” “Strike out” stories, by contrast, are “completely wrong” and come to “conclusions [that] are invalid.”

Allen said that the ratings were assigned according to stories’ accuracy and comprehensiveness, and according to the degree the coverage holds schools and public officials accountable for their policies, rather than ideology.

“The better way to look at it is, they’re not evaluating the issues addressed in the article per se, they’re evaluating how the reporters have treated the issues,” Allen said.

In addition to the rating, the site’s editors give each story a two to three-line explanation of why the score was assigned. Some of the notes make clear what the rater thought was missing from the story; others are confusing.

A Daily News story on the fallout from the closure of 10 Bronx schools was rated a single. “Might be a good idea to ask what alternatives are available,” the site’s note reads, not specifying whether it means alternatives to the closing schools or alternatives to the policy of school closure. “More options, please.”

The site gives a “strike out” to a New York Times City Room column that interviewed Lizabeth Ashleigh Cooper, the student member of the Panel for Educational Policy that voted last week to close her school. “Instead of tugging at heartstrings, let’s provide rationale for both sides of argument,” the site’s rater says.

One of the eight “home runs” the site has awarded so far went to a Wall Street Journal piece on Harlem Day Charter School, which is trying to renew its charter by bringing in new leadership. The Media Bullpen site praises the piece for its clear message: that “there is a demand and there is a need.”

So far coverage of charter school dominates the site, with scores assigned to 28 recent stories on charters in several states. The site does not uniformly assign high grades to stories that praise the charter schools, but some of the notes seem to betray a lack of skepticism about the schools’ ability to improve school systems.

For example, a piece about the Mississippi NAACP’s objections to legislation that would expand charter schools is given a “single” rating. The site notes that the piece explains the civil rights group’s objections, then says, “That’s great, but [Mississippi] falls at the bottom of ed rankings and charters can continue to help turn things around.”

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