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Noted journalist decries media's education coverage

One of this country's foremost education journalists, Fred M. Hechinger of the New York Times, sees education getting less coverage today than it did a few years ago.

To some extent, he adds, the decline in media coverage has been slowed recently with the flurry of stories about a ''rising tide of mediocrity'' and President Reagan's speeches on education. But this, he says, is not necessarily the kind of coverage that brings useful public response.

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In his view, public education has improved in recent years and deserves the increased public support that greater media attention could bring.

''I have no question in my own mind that the quality of public education is dramatically better than it was 10 or 15 years ago,'' he said in an interview at his office here. ''But the public perception hasn't caught up with the reality, and there is a danger that lessening support will take the steam out of the reform movement.''

In his present job as president of the New York Times Company Foundation, Mr. Hechinger stays in touch with education partly by administering a grants program of almost $1 million annually, with educational institutions among its major beneficiaries. But he also keeps his hand in more directly by writing a weekly column that is carried by the Times and distributed through its news service to other papers.

Reflecting on trends he has observed, Mr. Hechinger recalled that education became Page 1 news in the 1950s as a result, first, of the Supreme Court decision against segregation and, subsequently, the criticism of American education set off when the Russians seemed to excel by launching Sputnik.

''Then in the '60s education became sort of a battlefield, with the college upheavals, urban protests, and so on,'' he continues. ''Critics, at that time mainly of the left, said education was oppressive, and some of the criticism carried political overtones, a hope that if they could bring education down, they could bring the system down with it.''

''Education was on Page 1 almost all the time,'' he said. ''Here at the Times we had a larger staff to cover education than we do now, and we conscripted general assignment reporters to help. We had all the space we needed.'' Today, Mr. Hechinger said, the education story is ''no less important'' but ''less flashy.'' He cites stories about the inner life of schools, noting that they ''are enormously attractive because they deal with children.'' And they still can interest the general reader, he adds.

A founding member and former president of the Education Writers Association, he finds that ''fewer papers have specialists in education now. General assignment reporters are often given the school beat, which usually means they report on school board meetings but don't cover education in the broader sense.'' Certainly school board meetings deserve coverage, he quickly noted. But he said it is the specialist following education over a period of years who can identify many other important stories that lie beneath the surface.

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Mr. Hechinger said the newspaper trend away from coverage by specialists was evident in the weekly news magazines as well, and that they no longer follow their former practice of carrying an education section in virtually every issue. That is especially damaging, he said, because for a large part of the American population those magazines are the principal source of news about what is happening beyond the local community.''

Hechinger said it appeared that radio and television, too, are giving little attention to education, aside from covering the more dramatic stories in ''headline'' fashion.

''CBS did a good television series on public schools a couple of years ago, with Walter Cronkite and other top people involved, but I don't think much has been done recently,'' he said. He also expressed dismay about recent cutbacks in educational broadcasting.

Elaborating on his view that public education has improved in recent years, Mr. Hechinger cited renewed stress on quality, a growing number of states requiring minimum competency exams, a halt to the long-term decline in college entrance scores, and introduction of various special programs to upgrade teaching.

The troubling phenomenon now, in Hechinger's view, is a ''vicious circle'' in which lessened public interest causes editors to give education less emphasis, and reduced coverage leads to further erosion of public interest.

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