Rapid Response, Opposition Research, & Journalistic Disclosure

Notebook

I’ve written several times in the past about how both sides of the current education civil war — but perhaps reformers in particular — probably need to get better and faster at advocacy necessities such as opposition research, rapid response, and social media swarming.

In 2013, the reform advocacy group known as ConnCAN launched its own rapid response effort to counteract concerted claims and criticisms made against its efforts.  More recently, advocates have funded Education Post (a funder of The Grade along with the AFT) and some new blogs via StudentsFirst. Reform critics have their own versions of the same thing.

What I didn’t think about at the time is the journalistic challenges that it would bring to education reporters and editors being given salacious or just awkward information about ideological and political enemies.

There have been a handful of instances in which opposition research has surfaced in education stories — where the curtain has been pulled back.

Perhaps the most widely-known is the 2007 example in which it was reported that an oped criticizing Diane Ravitch was the product of information provided by the NYC Department of Education, then run by Joel Klein.

Like many other organizations and agencies, the USDE has monitored and responded publicly to reporters’ perceived inaccuracies in at least a few cases such as this one in which Justin Hamilton tweeted at a NYT reporter about his Common Core story:

.@jmartNYT factual error in your common core article. Obama never tied its adoption to Race to The Top eligibility…oft repeated falsehood.

— Justin Hamilton (@justinhamilton) April 20, 2014

But you can be sure there are many other instances since then where the stories you’re reading have been generated in part by friendly communications folks responding to a “bad” story or floating some negative information that’s been dug up, and that most of the complaints also happen in private emails or phone calls rather than on Twitter. Only rarely is the behind the scenes process written about, or disclosed. 

Just a few days ago, Politico reported that a media outlet — BuzzFeed, naturally — is getting into the “oppo” game, which creates all sorts of new angles and possibilities in education and more generally. The new five-person oppo research team at BuzzFeed is focused on the 2016 Presidential candidates so that the outlet doesn’t have to wait to be fed tidbits by campaigns and outside groups, or fall prey to morsels that turn out not to be true, or have to wait until the moment that a campaign releases the information.

It sorta makes sense. And there’s no reason that an education outlet like EdWeek or page like Politico’s Morning Education couldn’t do this.  Getting juicy tidbits over the transom is passive, difficult (there’s often very little time to vet the information before being pressured to publish), and almost always involves deceiving your readers (who are left to think you found the information on your own).

It’d be tricky and probably expensive to do well — like fact-checking sites. But it might well be better than the current system, in which journalists and editors are fed stories, or pressured to write something that’s being promoted on social media or on a blog. Someone feel like giving it a try?

The alternative, which I’ve proposed in the past, might be for education outlets to start revealing to their readers where their stories come from. This is especially worth considering when the information is negative and comes from a paid/professional source (ie, an advocate, PR professional, or antagonist of some kind).

Sounds crazy, but it’s not. The NYT’s ombudsperson recently wrote about the ethics of journalists using opposition research — especially when it seems obvious to readers but isn’t addressed in the piece itself. According to NYT editor Matthew Purdy, who was interviewed in the piece:

Most information comes from people with an agenda, and that includes environmental groups, gun-rights groups, community advocates, politicians, and all kinds of others.

However, there is a “burgeoning oppo research industry that is trying to get the press to write certain things.”  And sometimes, news outlets like the Times have indicated the source of the material they’re using, which I tend to think is ideal. For example:

The Times was alerted to the archive by American Bridge, a liberal political organization that has been critical of the Kochs.

It’s awkward, sure, to include this in a story. But it’s also extremely powerful, and if the story holds up then where it comes from shouldn’t be a problem. Skepticism alone — vetting the story internally — might not be enough.

But I’m not holding my breath. Most of the time, education stories are presented to readers as if they came from nowhere (and have never been written about before by anyone else).

Related posts: Decoding Think Tank-Fueled Education JournalismShould Journalists Disclose Public Figures’ School Decisions? Yes — & Their Own, TooSo This Is Happening

Alexander Russo

Alexander Russo is a freelance education writer who has created several long-running blogs such as the national news site This Week In Education, District 299 (about Chicago schools), and LA School Report. He can be reached on Twitter at @alexanderrusso, on Facebook, or directly at alexanderrusso@gmail.com.