Alternative Facts and He Said/She Said Reporting Erode Confidence in Public Institutions
Diane Ravitch wrote a post yesterday that discussed a NY Daily News op ed piece by Gleb Tsibursky titled “Trump is Getting What He Wants Out of Coverage of his Unfounded Accusations”. Citing research on how we process information, Mr. Tsibursky asserts that most readers only absorb the headline and initial paragraphs or headers that accompany the headline. Since this is the case, how an issue is framed in crucially important. He suggests that headlines like the one the AP used that read
“Trump Accuses Obama of Tapping His Phones, Cites No Evidence”
reinforce the notion that Mr. Trump’s accusations are true, especially when the accompanying article cites “both sides” of the issue. He suggests that a headline that read
“Trump Delivers Another Accusation Without Evidence, This Time Against Obama”
would emphasize the President’s tendency to make up stories (or, to put it more accurately, LIE), especially if the story was buried on the middle pages of the newspaper and had no rebuttal since there was no evidence offered to support the assertion.
Ms. Ravitch’s post and the accompanying comments brought to light the media coverage public schools received during the 29 years I led school districts. When I started my career as a Superintendent in Western Maine, one of the school board members was the owner, publisher, and writer for the weekly newspaper. A man of integrity, he limited his reporting to a recounting of the votes on the key agenda topics and a listing of the board members who failed to attend the meeting. He studiously avoided editorializing to the point of limiting adjectives in his articles. In his coverage of a debate on whether to replace a 1900 vintage school, he did not report on the descriptions of the facility offered by some board members (e.g. the board member who described it as a firetrap) and describing it as a three story wooden structure built in 1900. At the same time, the stringer for the regional newspaper only reported on stories that had a narrative fraught with conflict: a decision to eliminate football, for example, or a debate over consolidating bussing routes. If one read only the regional newspaper they would conclude that the district was in constant turmoil because the only articles they read about it were ones dealing with disputatious issues.
As I advanced in my career and worked in larger districts I observed the same phenomenon. The newspapers seldom covered meetings where we debated policies and reached consensus on potentially contentious issues. They loved covering incidents involving the firing of teachers for misconduct, budget conflicts where the board was divided over priorities, protracted disputes over union contracts, and splits on the board over the renewal of the Superintendent’s contract. I also observed that regional newspapers felt compelled to offer both “sides” equal coverage, even if one “side” was a lone dissenting vote against a sizable majority. This gave the dissenting voter— who in most cases was one individual board member, much more power than the bloc of board members who, invariably, were reported as “supporting the administration” or “supporting the teachers”. This kind of “he said/she said” reporting invariably deepened any splits that existed on the board and gave equal credence to the dissenting voices even if the dissenters had no evidence to support their assertions. I am certain I am not the only superintendent who found himself having to explain to voters that contrary to what they read in the newspaper there was no rampant “waste, fraud, and abuse” in the budget nor was there any “fat” in the administrative budget.
By far the worst “reporting” done by the media was in their publishing of letters to the editor, where anyone could offer their opinion on how the school district should operate even if they had no knowledge whatsoever about the district. A letter to the editor in my first year as Superintendent in a Western Maine district of 1400 students exemplifies the kind of misinformation that appeared on the letters-to-the-editor page. A fiscal conservative who thought that the “new Superintendent” spent too much money suggested that he look at making cuts to the central office where “everyone knew” there was a lot of fat. I read this aloud to my full time administrative assistant, part-time bookkeeper, and half-time special education administrator and suggested that the writer must have been referring to our weight because I couldn’t figure out how to make any more cuts to our central office staff.
My response to this letter was to write a rebuttal letter full of facts about how our staffing levels compared to those of comparable sized districts. One of the Board members who thought it was a well written letter suggested it wouldn’t make any difference. He knew what Mr. Tsibursky reported in his article: readers will “focus on information with emotional overtones, regardless of whether it is factual”. The original letter writer, a native of the area, who described me as the “new Superintendent” was using that term to convey to readers that I was a “fancy-talking flat-lander” who should be looked at with suspicion…. and while my facts were unassailable they were ultimately immaterial because of the prevailing wisdom that too much money was spent on administrators.
I think the counsel offered by that school board member might be applicable to those of us who support public schools. We can throw around facts and figures, but the only way to change the narrative about public education is to change what “everyone knows” about it. We need to encourage school districts to do everything possible to avoid the public conflicts that reinforce the notion that public education is dysfunctional and to make an effort to share the many successes we experience day in and day out. Finally, and most importantly, teachers, administrators, and school board members need to heed the advice of Albert Shanker who once said: “Teachers call the school boards idiots, and school boards call the teachers lazy, and the public believes both of them”.