Reflections: Journalism’s Role In The Current “Grit” Hype/ Criticism Cycle

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One of the things that aggravates journalism-watchers is that it can seem like there’s so little accountability and self-reflection in mainstream newsrooms, even when it’s clear that something’s gone wrong. 

This frustration can be especially acute with trend and innovation stories, which tend to get picked up by outlet and after outlet.  They get pageviews both ways, coming and going — but rarely provide any mea culpa, public or otherwise.

The media role in building up then tearing down trends and innovations is an issue that comes up lately with the news that the research by Angela Duckworth and others about “grit” and other noncognitive factors may have been exaggerated by both the researcher and the media who essentially touted it.

Don’t care about grit? You should still care about this.

For a while now, there’s been a seemingly never-ending stream of coverage of Duckworth and her findings. (My own contribution to the pile is this interview from Winter 2014.) Now it’s being claimed that Duckworth may have exaggerated her own findings. 

Some of the examples that have been cited when it comes to Duckworth’s claims include a recent NYT interview in which Duckworth is quoted saying “My lab has found that this measure beats the pants off I.Q., SAT scores, physical fitness and a bazillion other measures to help us know in advance which individuals will be successful in some situations.” 

Duckworth is also quoted making similar claims in her much-watched 2013 TED Talk:  When looking at rookie teachers, salespeople, and other jobs, “one characteristic emerged as a significant predictor of success. And it wasn’t social intelligence. It wasn’t good looks, physical health, and it wasn’t IQ. It was grit.”

After a  slow build this past winter (fueled in part by schools’ attempts to teach and grade grit), the media skepticism is now coming fast and furious. Some examples:

*A NY Magazine article by Melissa Dahl (Why You Should Question the Hype About Grit) describes grit as “an exciting idea for which the enthusiasm has rapidly outpaced the science.”  That’s because the existing research is “too new to apply to educational policy in any meaningful way.”  

*Jeff Selingo in the Washington Post (Is ‘grit’ overrated in explaining student success?) describes grit as “perhaps the hottest trend in education circles these days” and compares the buzzword to Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hours of practice. 

*Slate’s Danie Engber (Angela Duckworth says grit is the key to success in work and life. Is this a bold new idea or the latest self-help fad?) writes “a closer look at Duckworth’s seminal research, as well as some recent studies from her colleagues in the field, suggest there isn’t much supporting evidence for either of her theses.”

*NPR’s Anya Kamenetz (MacArthur ‘Genius’ Angela Duckworth Responds To A New Critique Of Grit), quotes Iowa State’s Marcus Crede saying “My overall assessment is that grit is far less important than has commonly been assumed and claimed,… and it doesn’t tell us anything that we don’t already know.” This is based on a forthcoming Crede study, titled Much Ado about Grit.

But where was the media skepticism to be found on the front end, when the grit juggernaut was growing?

In a recent email exchange, Crede says that he doesn’t think the media has “done a particularly good job challenging some of her statements about the importance and uniqueness of grit.”

In particular, he cites a 2014 National Geographic piece that struck him as being “almost a hagiography” and an April 2016 NYT interview quoted above. 

“To anyone familiar with the literature on the prediction of success and performance [Duckworth’s assertion that grit outpredicts looks, health, and IQ] is simply an astonishing claim.”

According to Crede, “It would seem like responsible journalism to ask skeptical questions or to seek out skeptical alternative views.”

To be fair, it wasn’t just the press that wasn’t asking tough enough questions, according to Crede. “I also think that the academic community was not sufficiently cautious or skeptical either. Most people (including academic researchers) love the idea of a simple “life-hack” or magic bullet that will help us become more successful in life.”

Duckworth herself has expressed caution about over-simplification and premature implementation of her research in schools. She also responded to some of Crede’s criticisms in the NPR article.

However, it’s not entirely her fault what’s happened, and this isn’t the first time that the media’s hyped an important education and fostered public misconceptions. Ten years ago, the New Yorker’s Kate Boo wrote about how Head Start hype had hurt its prospects. This 2008 “On The Media” segment explored how the media got NCLB wrong. The now-infamous 10,000 hours rule turns out not to have been so universal as it initially seemed. Just recently, the NYT went back and re-reported the 1999 Columbine shooting and found several major problems.

The larger issue is whether journalists are being sufficiently skeptical on the front end, or reflecting on the back end — and trying to limit the negative effects on promising research and programs that occur when journalism knocks something off a pedestal that’s at least partly of its own creation.

Education editors at several major news outlets did not respond to an email asking them to reflect on whether they had been adequately cautious in assigning and covering the Duckworth story in the past. (One who did, WNYC’s Patricia Willens, said that the station had largely left the story to others.)

Asked whether she felt she’d been sufficiently skeptical in the NYT interview referenced above, contributor Julie Scelfo noted that she’d asked Duckworth whether all the focus on grit ignored larger social forces at play.

Reached by email about the media role, Duckworth responded that she was on an international book tour and wasn’t able to respond immediately. Her comments will be added or updated when they arrive.

Related posts: AltSchool, Media Hype, & the Dilemma of Innovation Stories.

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.