APM Reports’ Emily Hanford Discusses What She Looks for When Covering Education Research
APM Reports’ Emily Hanford Discusses What She Looks for When Covering Education Research
March 2018

The following Q&A is one in an occasional series of conversations with policy and opinion leaders with an interest in and commitment to education research. Emily Hanford is senior correspondent at APM Reports. She produces documentaries about education that can be heard on the Educate podcast. In 2017, Hanford won AERA’s Excellence in Media Reporting on Education Research Award. She has also won awards from the Education Writers Association and the Associated Press. She can be reached at ehanford@apmreports.org.

Q. What factors do you consider when determining whether a new research study is worth covering?

A. Since I work on long-term documentary projects and not in daily or weekly news, I am typically not “covering” a research study in the traditional sense. Instead, I have a topic I am reporting on, and I go looking for the relevant and significant research on that topic. I am usually motivated by big questions such as “What do we know about why teachers leave the profession?” or “Why do so many students end up in remedial classes in college?” Digging into the research on questions like these is one of the best parts of my job. Often my questions are formulated in response to a piece of research I have come across in a trade journal or news article, or from hearing someone speak at a conference. Also, questions I tackle for one project inevitably lead to questions that motivate future projects. For example, the documentary I made on remedial education (linked above) led to questions about what kind of help students with dyslexia are getting in the K-12 system.

Q. How do you decide if research is of high enough quality to cover?

A. I admit I struggle with this one sometimes. Since I am motivated by big questions, I often end up with a big pile of studies to sift through. I look for books and papers that synthesize the existing research and I am so grateful when I find things that are clear and well-written. I’ve been known to get a bit lost in the weeds of footnotes and citations. When that starts to happen, I know it’s time to pick up the phone and start talking to people. Lots of things begin to click when I hear people explain their work, and I get the chance to ask questions about methodology and relevance and the existing research base. Many researchers have been very patient with me over the years, answering basic questions about statistical methods and effect sizes and correlational values. One of the biggest challenges of my job is explaining complex findings in very short and simple terms. I don’t think I always succeed at this.

Q. What areas of current education research are ripe for expanded coverage?

A. I think we need to know much more about how people learn, and especially about how those findings can be effectively applied in classrooms. As I know many researchers are well aware, the gap between research and practice can be startling. I think this gap needs more coverage by reporters. It’s a rich area for storytelling because there are so many fascinating questions and complex issues that arise when trying to align classroom practice with the best evidence in education. But also—why do so many “neuromyths” persist in schools? For example, the idea that people have different learning styles. Psychologist Dan Willingham has done a great job explaining why this idea is wrong, and yet I hear learning styles referred to all the time when I am talking to educators. Another area I’m currently investigating is why schools don’t do a better job teaching children to read. Reading is perhaps one of the most researched areas in all of education, and yet reading instruction in most schools is largely uninformed by what is known about how people become proficient readers. Why is that? A documentary on that topic will be available on the Educate podcast and the APM Reports website in Fall 2018.

Q. What education issues are especially newsworthy right now? Which ones do you see emerging over the next six months or year? What questions related to those issues lend themselves to education research?

A. Since I don’t cover daily news, I may not be the best person to answer this question. I can tell you some issues that I think should be emerging on the national consciousness. I think we need to better understand the role that various financial interests play—including publishing companies, political donors, private foundations—when it comes to shaping the conversation about education in this country. For example, what role does the publishing industry play in perpetuating certain ideas about how children should be taught to read? And on any topic in education—who has a financial interest in the status quo, who has a financial interest in change, and how do those interests color the conversation? I think these are essential questions for researchers because research gets used and politicized in an environment that is at least partly driven by money.

Another topic that needs more attention is how education can more effectively promote social and economic mobility. We have built a system in this country where family income drives educational opportunity and we need to better understand what is going on and what can be done about it. We’re working on an audio documentary now about higher education and social mobility, looking at the work being done by The Equality of Opportunity Project. An exciting finding from that research is that students from low-income families who go to selective colleges end up doing just about as well, economically speaking, as students from affluent families. But as a nation we should be shocked and appalled that children from the wealthiest families are 77 times more likely than low-income children to go to the most selective colleges. I think we need more research that helps us understand what to do about this issue.

Q. What advice do you have for researchers and other science communicators to make research findings more accessible to reporters and other non-researchers?

A. Research findings are made accessible to reporters like me when they are accompanied by clear, compelling summaries (not abstracts!) with quotes from the researchers. Begin the narrative, and you’ll hook people. AERA press releases do this well (not just saying this because this is an AERA newsletter). In my line of work (producing audio documentaries), it really helps when researchers are good talkers (and it can hurt when they’re not). Can you tell a story about what you’ve done, and why, and why it matters? Can you explain your findings in simple terms? Can you connect what you’ve done to other research findings? When I call people up to ask them about their work, it’s a pre-interview for a possible recorded sit-down at a later date. I’m not just listening to what people say, but how they say it. Become a good talker.

Q. What are some best practices researchers and science communicators should consider when pitching research?

A. Pay attention to the big picture. Why should people—readers, listeners—care about this research finding? This is the question editors are most likely to ask, and if a reporter does not have a good answer, the editor isn’t likely to buy the story. Help reporters answer this question.