Research looks at coverage of high school academics, athletics

The study shows media cover high school sports more than academics.

Sam Darcy

At a St. Paul private high school, weekend football games attract reporters, photographers and TV crews alongside a rowdy and dedicated student crowd.

But sometimes academic success at the school is put on the back burner, said Mary Jo Groeller, admissions administrator at Cretin-Derham Hall High School.

“I wish it were bigger news when kids do remarkable things,” Groeller said. “The emphasis in society makes sports news but not academics, and it’s frustrating.”

The disparity isn’t just affecting Cretin-Derham Hall students. The results of University research between April 1 and June 30 show high school athletes often get 4 to 8 times the media coverage of an academic all-star.

Conducted by Joe Nathan, director of the Center for School Change at the Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs, the study found a gap in the number of articles devoted to recognition of high school academics compared with articles about high school athletics.

Nathan said that for every column inch printed about academic accomplishments, the Star Tribune printed 4 to 8 column inches on athletics. The Pioneer Press printed one to three times more stories about athletes than academics.

“My observation about news media is that they help to tell people what is most important,” he said. “The implied message is athletic accomplishment is more important than academic.”

Nathan said unbalanced media coverage has contributed to students taking emphasis off academics. He said one-third of students graduating from Minnesota high schools need to take remedial courses in college.

Because of a tougher screening process, 10 percent of students at the University need to take remedial classes, Nathan said.

“We feel that a large number of young people are not feeling a need to work hard in school,” he said. “A large number of people are graduating without proper skills.”

But Maureen McCarthy, Star Tribune education leader, said she does not look at education coverage the same way Nathan does.

Education coverage involves more than academic recognition; it might include referendums and taxes, she said. McCarthy said area schools need to notify reporters of stories about academics.

“We’re not ignoring good stories; we’re not being told good stories,” she said. “It’s unrealistic to expect two reporters to know what is going on in all area high schools.”

Senior anthropology major Nick Boerum said that although he believes athletics are not covered more than academics, students do strive for athletic recognition.

“I think athletes of the week and stuff makes people want to succeed more athletically than academically,” he said. “If you’re on the honor roll you just get your name in the paper, if you get athlete of the week you get a picture and stuff.”

KARE 11 tries to balance the athlete recognition with an academic all-stars segment every Monday, said news director Tom Lindner.

Nathan said a majority of local stations show their academic standouts during the morning broadcasts, when most students are in school, while the major sports programs air during the night broadcasts.

“The heroes emulated are athletes, not the ones doing academics,” he said. “We don’t think this is the solution, but we do think it’s one important step.”