20-Plus Bad Habits to Avoid When School Starts

New York Magazine’s 20,000-word assemblage of big-name journalists complaining about what they and their colleagues do all day isn’t specifically about the education beat.

But the piece (The Case Against the Media, by the Media) — based interviews with 40 journalists and media figures and a survey of 113 others — includes a few mentions of education coverage and enough systemic issues that it’s worth noting, especially since the new school year is ramping up and everyone wants to do a great job (right?).

There is some good news among all the complaints, here and there. Social media is credited for bringing “new voices to the fore and for connecting established ones to new audiences.” Prominent truth-benders like Donald Trump helped journalists “become more aggressive in fact-checking falsehoods.” Nonprofit shops and a new generation of media owners suggest a possible future for the traditional model. Journalism may be under attack, but in the process it’s rediscovering itself.

Much of the piece is grim: The public doesn’t trust journalists (both broadcast and “print”). Claims of bias are everywhere (and on both sides). Evidence of journalistic lapses/insufficient coverage are abundant. Social media is regularly shaming professional journalism by getting to stories first. The notions most journalist hold — that their work is “objective, rigorous, informative ” — is contradicted by the possibility that too much of journalism was “partisan, mendacious, lazy, sloppy, and shrill.”

Here are 25 flaws, bad habits, and tendencies to avoid in 2016-2017. Those in bold seem particularly relevant to education beat coverage:

SUPER SIMPLISTIC STORYTELLING:
“Our actual problems are bigger, more complicated, more sprawling and complex, than good guys and bad guys…. The simplicity of the narrative is incredibly debilitating [and displaces the much more important job of] examining, assessing, and arguing for systemic solutions to systemic problems.” (David Simon)

CREATING HEROES, THEN GOATS:
“People like these ‘Genius comes in to save the day’ narratives, as if it’s that simple. And then when it doesn’t turn out, they’re like ‘Genius didn’t save the day, she’s a goat.’” (Kara Swisher)

FEARFUL OF STRIKING OUT ON THEIR OWN:
“There’s huge numbers of obviously newsworthy stories that are routinely, systematically ignored by large media outlets… Where the two parties essentially agree, which is far more common than disagreeing, those tend to get completely ignored.” (Glenn Greenwald)

TENDENCY TO BECOME CAPTIVE OF SOURCES:
“The highest cost to a beat reporter is being scooped on a really big piece of news… It’s a situation that is ripe for journalistic capture.” (Jesse Eisinger)

ABSOLUTELY TERRIFIED OF GOOD NEWS STORIES:
“The opposite of a bad story isn’t a good story, it’s a nonstory.” (Jonathan Chait)

IN LOVE WITH “OUTRAGE” STORIES:
“Let’s find someone who’s done something bad and skewer him… kicking the hornet’s nest to get clicks. You’re publishing stuff purely for the sake of provoking your readers.” (David Auerbach)

LYING ABOUT HOW IT REALLY WORKS:
“The reality is, often a story is made better by showing sources parts of the story before it goes to publication and saying, ‘Is this right?’ And the source might say, ‘No, that’s not right.’ And then you would say, ‘Okay, what’s not right here?’ And the source will talk more, and give another fact, or give two facts… The practice is ubiquitous among really good journalists. You’re not supposed to explain this stuff either, because journalism, like every other profession, is a fraternity.” (Marc Ambinder)

STRIKINGLY ALIKE IN BACKGROUND AND OUTLOOK:
“[Journalism is now] filled with people who think exactly the same, who are from the same backgrounds, who have the same assumptions about everything. And you get a much less interesting product when you have that.”

STRANGELY FEARFUL OF BEING DIFFERENT:
When was the last time you saw anybody in the press — except the fringe press — really write a piece that challenged the assumptions of their neighbors? That would actually make their friends in Brooklyn avert their gaze?”  (Tucker Carlson)

PRONE TO STEREOTYPING OTHERS:
“What we do is we run out and find that thing that we believe in our heads to be true. We see it all the time. That is why most of the time, when local media does something on someone on food stamps, it’s a black woman, and she’s got a bunch of kids, and she’s obese. That is not accidental. You’re just living out your own stereotypes. This is the bias that reporters bring to their job.” (Soledad O’Brien)<

RACIST IN HIRING:
“If those persons who make decisions about the staffing in our newsrooms had the same respect for the dignity and the humanity and the sanctity of black life — that is to say, if they thought more of black people and the gifts and the talents that they bring to the table — then there would be more of us sitting at the table.” (Tavis Smiley)

TURNING “ISSUES” INTO A SIDEBAR:
“All the intellectual action in campaign coverage is over before the campaign begins. The basic story is: ‘Who’s gonna win?’ And then there is a sidebar story called ‘Issues.’ ” (Jay Rosen)<

TURNING A BLIND EYE ON WHAT’S REALLY HAPPENING:
“The marginalization of labor, the purchase of government, the rampant drug war, mass incarceration, the demeaning of the working class and the brutalities of globalization — we told those stories too late or not at all.” (David Simon)

BOXED IN BY OBJECTIVITY:
“I think that, at some point, the mainstream media — both rightfully and strategically — needs to shed that cloak of objectivity and say, point blank, ‘This is not a good person, this is not who should lead our country.’ They’re handicapping themselves by playing by a set of rules that no one else is playing by anymore.” (Kurt Bardella)

MASS ADHD
“Journalists can be like a school of fish, they all turn in formation really fast, chasing the bright shiny lure.” (Bill Keller)

NOT INCLINED TO EXAMINE THEIR OWN FAILINGS:
“In the CIA they have a process called ‘walking the cat back.’ If something happens that is a surprise, like a country shockingly testing a nuclear weapon, as they did, years ago, then the CIA will go through all their intelligence. They say, ‘Okay. We know this happened on this date. When could we have — when should we have — seen it earlier?’ ” (Bob Woodward)

FORGETFUL ABOUT FOLLOW-UPS:
“What happened in those Seattle school cases where they did away with the busing? Did the cities resegregate? Did they not resegregate? We are so bad, with very few exceptions, of doing the ‘Five years later, what was the impact of those affirmative-action cases?’” (Dahlia Lithwick)

OFFER NEUTRALITY TO COVER UP LACK OF KNOWLEDGE:
“So a lot of times repetitive narratives, or lazy narratives, or devices like he-said-she-said, are substitutes for real knowledge.” (Jay Rosen)

FREAKS ABOUT FAIRNESS:
“If you think, ‘I don’t want to impose a story that those guys are insane, so I’m going to bend over to the opposite direction, so that I can be fair.’ Well, now you’ve erased the possibility that what you think of as wacky and serious coexist, that the deliverance ministry and the strategic political thinking coexist, and always have. And that’s sort of dangerous, right?” (Jeff Sharlet)

USE DEADLINES AND SHORT PIECES AS AN EXCUSE:
“The whole ‘We only have 90 seconds or two minutes, and we’re not a medical journal,’ all of which just rang very hollow with me, because I got my start in television news. I know that you can cover the same stories with a gee-whiz attitude, or leading with your uncertainties and your limitations.” (Gary Schwitzer)

 

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.