Background/Context: Literacy education has always been hotly contested, and in England the debate has recently intensified in controversies over synthetic phonics teaching and the National Literacy Strategy. This article brings together four theoretical and policy contexts in studying this debate: (1) the long-standing and on-going “reading wars”; (2) theories of deliberative democracy, and the particular problems of how the mass media facilitate and/or suppress public discourse and the participation of academic experts in the public sphere; (3) the affordances and constraints of television news reporting, and in particular, the emergence of the makeover reality television genre as a model for current affairs reporting; and (4) the “evidence-based policy” movement in educational research.
Purpose/Questions: This article examines a prominent media event—the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) television program Newsnight’s reports on synthetic phonics teaching—to reflect on the relationship between educational research, the media, and the treatment of educational problems in the public sphere. I ask: How are educational problems represented in the mass media? How do and should academic researchers participate in public debates about these problems?
Research Design: This interpretive study is based primarily on critical analysis of three news reports and was informed by rhetorical criticism, genre analysis, ethnographic research of the educational program represented, and theoretical concerns about the interaction of research, the mass media, and the public sphere. Key participants in the media event were also interviewed.
The prestigious news program has poorly served public debate by narrowing the problem of educational improvement to a question of teaching method; by promoting a “makeover” approach to school reform; and by casting the issue in the inherited yet inadequate terms of the traditional “reading wars” frame. The two educational researchers appearing on the program adopted different rhetorical strategies. One invoked his academic authority and acted as an epistemological gatekeeper. The second, who was deemed to be more successful, addressed viewers as consumers of educational goods and couched her academic concerns in everyday language.
Conclusions: The case study has implications for the way that educational researchers communicate their ideas to the general public. In particular, it raises questions about the desirability and likely effectiveness of the currently popular strategy to maximize research influence through the promotion of “evidence-based” policy.