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Study Highlights How Parents Stay Informed

February 16, 2022

In early 2020 the Hewlett Foundation commissioned a two-part study, the first part of which aimed to look at how parents are staying informed about schools and education.

Jesse Holcomb, a journalism and communication professor at Calvin University, has been doing public opinion research about news and media for more than a decade. So it made sense that he was tapped to lead the study.

But just as Holcomb was ready to deploy an initial survey to parents, there was a major shakeup: “COVID hit our education system like a meteor,” he said.

“That required me to really rethink and reframe how I was going to do this study,” said Holcomb. “We had to pivot, and it turned out to be an incredible opportunity – because when any kind of structure or system is under a great deal of stress, it’s a great time to examine how it performs under that stress.”

So, Holcomb, with a team including undergraduate researchers at Calvin, got to work.

“I absolutely couldn’t have done this work without any of these researchers,” he said. “I can’t tell you what a delight it’s been in my years at Calvin to work with these bright undergraduates, a group that hails from a wide range of backgrounds, each bringing something unique to this project. The students helped me with the work every step of the way, from thinking through the research design to helping me with the data once we got it back – and the Center for Social Research was essential in helping manage the production of the study.”

The first survey of parents began just after schools had universally shut down in spring 2020, and then many of those same parents were reinterviewed in August 2021. All told, the research incorporated more than 4,300 survey interviews. The many findings from the study zeroed in on a few key areas: parents are desperate for high-quality information about schools and education; not all parents are using information sources in the same way (and this varies based on race/ethnicity); and parents want more solution-based news coverage rather than just stories that emphasize the problems.

Inform Us

In the initial survey, parents were asked which news topics were most important to stay informed about. Two topics—public health and schools, rose to the top of the list, being viewed as “very important” by 57 percent of parents surveyed. These topics were viewed with nearly twice the urgency of government and politics.

By the time of the August 2021 survey, schools and education had clearly emerged as the leading issue for parents when it came to staying informed, with 69 percent saying education was “very important.”

“This is a topic that clearly hits close to home,” said Holcomb.

Know Us

While, across the board, American parents are desperate for high-quality information, the study found that how news and information sources were used and viewed varied among racial and ethnicity groups.

“In all of my years studying news and media access among American publics, it’s clear that there are pretty consistent information gaps and inequities, and parents of color are often underserved in terms of high-quality news and information,” said Holcomb.

One of the key findings in this area is that parents of color, especially black parents, use a variety of news sources at higher rates than white parents do. But Holcomb also found it interesting that white parents reported at a higher rate that they found a variety of nonmedia sources especially useful to them.

“As I reflect on that finding, it suggests to me that white parents for a variety of reasons have access to powerful information networks that parents of color don’t always have,” said Holcomb. “And so black and Hispanic parents are particularly reliant on TV, newspapers, and ethnic media to meet their information needs.”

Guide Us

Another key finding of the survey was that parents want what Holcomb describes as service or solutions journalism. He points out that news coverage often focuses on reporting what just happened. In fact, Holcomb will release a second report at the end of February 2022 that clearly confirms this. But he says that what parents have really wanted – and to a greater extent at this time in history – is help.

“Parents are telling us in this research that they need an advocate and a guide, not just a broadcaster,” said Holcomb. “Parents want practical information that is going to help them navigate things like online education, student mental health, and child preparedness as we enter the endemic stage of COVID. They need information tools to help them navigate their educational systems, which can be confusing, and in some cases, hard to access.”

Take Action

The findings of the study are interesting, but more importantly they are also actionable.

For parents, “survey research at its best holds up a mirror to us all; it can help us see ways we are not alone,” said Holcomb. “My hope is parents can see that they are in good company, that other parents are just as eager for tools to help them navigate this challenging time.”

For schools and administrators, Holcomb said he hopes the findings provide an opportunity to make sure that the ways in which they are sharing information is not a one-size-fits-all approach, because some communication pathways aren’t as accessible to all. “Schools are vital sources of information for parents, and they need to think hard about the diversity of experiences and information needs that their parents and their families have,” he said.

Holcomb added that the media are key players in all of this. “I hope that they will be inspired to see their role not just as a news provider but also as a parent advocate. School systems, especially during the pandemic, are difficult to navigate, and parents have lots of questions, so journalists have a great opportunity to play an important role here.”

The second part of this study commissioned by the Hewlett Foundation focuses on news coverage of education itself and will be published later this month. That study, also led by Holcomb, includes questions of how frequently news organizations provide solutions-based coverage of schools and identifies the kinds of themes emphasized in local news coverage in 20 markets across the United States.