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Remarks at the 2017 Education Writers Association National Seminar

FutureEd recently co-hosted the 70th Education Writers Association national seminar at Georgetown with the McCourt School of Public Policy. FutureEd Director Thomas Toch gave these openings remarks to the more than 600 journalists, researchers and advocates gathered for the conference May 31 to June 2.

On behalf of Georgetown President Jack DeGioia, Dean Ed Montgomery of the McCourt School of Public Policy, and my colleagues at McCourt and FutureEd, it is my pleasure to welcome you to Georgetown for the 70th EWA national seminar.

I would like to thank the de Laski Family Foundation and McCourt for providing the resources that have allowed us to host the conference at Georgetown.

As you well know, we come together at a very difficult time for journalism.

The President denounces the press as "enemies of the people."

A segment of the electorate cheers when a Congressional candidate physically assaults a journalist asking a straightforward question that is on the minds of many voters.

The public debate is awash in "fake news."

The U.S. Secretary of Education traverses Washington in an armored SUV, protected by U.S. Marshals.

Meanwhile, the failure of journalism's traditional business model has made it difficult for many independent news organizations to keep their doors open, much less compete effectively with the flood of unfiltered information emanating from the web.

In education, we can take some encouragement from the emergence of new, independent organizations like ChalkBeat and the Hechinger Report that have in recent years replaced some of the daily education reporting lost to budget cuts.

And some long-standing journalism outlets such as The Atlantic have used the internet to expand their education coverage.

Importantly, many of these new contributors must rely on the foundations that fund them to ensure that they are able to work independently, with the freedom to go where evidence leads them.

Fred Hechinger, who EWA honors every year with an award in his name, was acutely aware of the importance of the press's independence.

When I was a young reporter on the team that launched Education Week, he invited me to have lunch with him at the New York Times' former headquarters on West 43st Street. Fred at that point in his career was the paper's education columnist, but he had served previously on the Times' editorial board during the Viet Nam War, Watergate, and Nixon's resignation.

So perhaps I shouldn't have been surprised at the way he described his work. "When there's battle ranging on some subject in the valley below," he told me, "I stay under cover on the hillside. And when the firing stops and the smoke clears, I come down and shoot the wounded."

To be sanguine about journalism today requires an abiding faith in the redemptive power of the truth, and a determination to pursue it faithfully and relentlessly.

That is a substantial burden to bear in an era of rapid news cycles and stretched resources. When I was the education correspondent at US News and World Report in the 1990's, we had three layers of editors, a dozen fact-checkers, and a copyediting desk.

Today, even the nation's most prominent news organizations increasingly lack the capacity to provide that level of support, given the pace of digital publishing and tightening budgets.

So it falls increasingly to you as individual journalists to navigate on your own the perils of conventional wisdom, facile story lines, and other challenges that leave your readers and listeners and viewers at arm's length from the truth.

It falls to you to know well the subjects you cover, to provide clarity and context, and to see through and beyond the myriad adult agendas that pervade the education debate at the expense of what's best for students.

Ultimately, and perhaps ironically, it is the rigor of your work that will sustain the journalistic enterprise in an era where anyone with a URL is an expert, where misinformation has been elevated to an art form. As the media analyst Craig Huber said recently, "The only future for newspapers is at the high end of quality journalism. That, and only that, is what people are willing to pay for." The same is true for every other journalism genre.

That is why I am so pleased to support EWA's work. The depth and breadth of this year's national seminar agenda reflects EWA's impressive commitment to the highest quality education journalism—to thoughtful, informed, and independent reporting on what is a cornerstone of civic life and civil society.

So I wish you all a pleasant and productive three days here at Georgetown. Your work is very important. Thank you.