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When Newspapers Become Fish Wrap

By       Message Patrick Mattimore     Permalink
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During the mid-1990s, I took a month-long trip with my family outside the U.S. Seeing Peru up close for a month certainly affected my impressions about that country, but it was an event that happened as we were returning that I most remember.

We were changing planes in Houston to return to San Francisco and I picked up a copy of The New York Times. That day's edition had a story with a Lima dateline about events in the capital city which were threatening to overthrow the government of then-President Alberto Fujimori.

I had been in Lima that morning and two or three days prior to that. I had seen a small non-violent demonstration near the capital building and talked to cab drivers to gauge a sense of their opinions about the government. What struck me most about The Times article was that it was at odds with what I had seen and heard. In fact, what I knew of events in Lima was not newsworthy at all.

There were three takeaway lessons. First, I lost a little faith in The NYT as a result of reading that story. Second, that experience and subsequent ones with stories about which I'm familiar have convinced me that news gatherers, regrettably, are often wrong. Finally, and most important, the fact that the likely lone reporter in Lima obviously felt the need to dramatize events in Peru in order to get his story into the paper, and his ability to do so without challenge, persuaded me of the danger of single-source reports.

In the age of the Internet, we rarely lack for voices and opinions about issues. The problem is that we still get, according to a recent book by Alex Jones, "Losing the News- The Future of the News That Feeds Democracy," about 85 percent of fact-based information from newspapers attempting to record, explain, and investigate events. When that information is generated by one person, what guarantee do we have that it is accurate?

Newspapers, as everyone knows, are in a tailspin. They simply can't provide the manpower and resources to do their job when the ultimate benefactors are derivative forms of media that don't have to make the capital investments in the product. So newspapers are forced to investigate less, rely on wire stories more, and cut editorial support. Increasingly, the newspaper model is becoming an online source in which stories may be contributed by a variety of independent contractors.
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In my little corner of interest, educational issues, and specifically those related to standardized tests, I've seen a phenomenon that is discouraging. Typically, a news release is issued by a large stakeholder, say the College Board, and the story's talking points are picked up by an Associated Press reporter covering education. The AP story is then circulated to newspapers nationwide as the sole "factual" account.

Even the sources most knowledgeable about an issue, the Chronicle of Higher Education in the case of college and graduate studies, or Education Week with regard to K-12, will often adopt a wire-service mantra without vetting the story. An example is Education Week's report about the National Governors Association pilot Advanced Placement (AP) program released earlier this month.
http://www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2009/08/10/01nga.h29.html?qs=advanced+placement
Education Week reported that:
"While enrollment numbers in the pilot schools have increased, so has performance in those subjects... .In the pilot sites, the percentage of students earning a score of 3 or higher on the 5-point scale increased from 6.6 percent in the 2005-06 school year to 8.3 percent two years later."

We don't know if performance on the exam did in fact improve. Since many more students took the exams in 2007-2008 than in 2005-2006, the passing percentage on the exams should have increased correspondingly. That's because NGA reported passing percentages, not based upon the number of students taking the exams, but upon the entire school populations at the pilot schools, whether students tested or not.

By computing success percentages based upon increased participation rates, the NGA report covers up failure rates based upon the performance of test takers. So, although it looks on the surface as if the program is succeeding, it's impossible to know that without additional figures that NGA does not provide and Education Week apparently did not solicit.

In an era of increasingly fractionalized public debate, it would be nice to know that we at least have a fact-based common ground upon which we can base our opinions. Unfortunately, we can't really trust newspapers to provide that base.

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Freelance journalist; fellow, Institute for Analytic Journalism.

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