Why Do Reporters Get it Wrong?

It’s really frustrating, but some reporters continue to mis-represent the scholarly literature on the effects of private school choice programs.  We devoted an entire chapter in Education Myths to debunking “The Inconclusive Research Myth.”  But like an un-dead vampire that won’t die even after you’ve driven a stake through it’s heart, reporters keep repeating as fact things like the following:

Studies have generally found no clear advantage in academic achievement for students attending private
schools with vouchers.

That statement was the conclusion of the famously unreliable and partisan Center on Education Policy.  And reporter Tom Toch embraced it as an accurate summary of voucher research in his recent article in the Kappan.  What do we have to do to stop reporters from repeating this falsehood?

This blog post from Adam Emerson at the newly launched Fordham blog, Choice Words, is a great start.  Here’s a taste:

School voucher critics generally approach their job reviewing the research on school choice with unfair assumptions, and otherwise insightful commentators risk recycling old canards. This is true with Thomas Toch’s critique of vouchers in the newest edition of Kappan, which concludes that voucher programs haven’t shown enough impact to justify their position in a large-scale reform effort. Questions of scale can lead to legitimate debate, but we’ll get nowhere until we acknowledge what’s in the literature.

And Adam doesn’t even reference all of the gold standard (random assignment) research showing positive effects for students who participate in voucher programs, not to mention all of the rigorous studies finding that entire school systems improve in response to vouchers.

So why do people like Tom Toch, who’s not stupid or mean, fail to acknowledge this wealth of evidence showing benefits from voucher programs and just focus on crappy and mistaken summaries from hacks at CEP?

4 Responses to Why Do Reporters Get it Wrong?

  1. George Mitchell says:

    Several factors help explain the failure of reporters to accurately report the research.

    1. Newsrooms skew liberal. Vouchers are viewed as conservative.

    2. Many reporters — especially education reporters — don’t understand the basics of social science research, i.e., treatment and control groups, statistical significance, et.al.

    The Milwaukee print media have had one reporter in the 21 years of the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program who had the necessary skills. His name is Sam Schulhofer-Wohl, now a senior economist at the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis.

    The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s current education reporter issued a gullible report on the CEP study (http://www.jsonline.com/news/education/126225423.html), describing CEP as “independent.” The same reporter told me in an email that she would not seek comment from John Witte and Jay Greene because their observations about school choice showed them not to be “independent.” The same reporter wrote a page one story last year about an “apple to apples” comparison of public and private school test scores that was anything but.

    3. Many reporters nationally will turn to their colleagues in Milwaukee for insight on school choice effectiveness. As a result, much of the flawed Milwaukee reporting gets recycled.

    4. Many reporters react to criticism of their work by erecting and knocking down straw men. Instead of directly addressing specific criticisms they attribute statements to critics that are easily refutable. This is a standard tactic in most newsrooms and extends well beyond education reporting.

  2. Joy Pullmann says:

    This Uncommon Knowledge interview should answer that question with some rather amazing research. The book prompting the interview is excellent.

    Essentially, it indicates most reporters don’t seek to write falsehoods but end up skewing left because of their reference points.

    In this case, I’d imagine the error is for one of two reasons, or both:

    1: Most reporters see piles of “studies” while on their beats and rarely read them through or understand the basic ways to compare the quality of one to the other. The pressure to get out the story combined with juggling eight stories at once makes that just impossible even if the reporter wanted to read them. So, to this gentlemen, “the research is mixed” is a true statement from the varying study headlines he’s read over the years.

    2. Because of the reference point I mentioned above, this fellow has never seen your or Greg’s review of the best voucher studies.

    Also, reporters have heard lots of spin and believe in the myth of “nonpartisan and unbiased,” so will discount slightly in their minds pro-voucher things coming from a known choice advocate, or pro-union things coming from a union leader.

  3. allen says:

    If you’re hankering for your “Woodward and Bernstein” moment you need a Nixon. But bad guys like Nixon – someone upon whom you can heap abuse but isn’t personally dangerous to the reporter – aren’t that common so you do the best you can with what you’ve got and you make a point of not looking too closely at the information that might erode some of the credibility of your particular bad guy.

    So vouchers you inform a panting public, along with being a dastardely, right-wing plot to undermine that sterling institution, the public education system, don’t work that well anyway.

  4. All of the above, plus (a) the desire to maintain relations with industry insiders (who will be union and other system representatives) who will make a cooperative reporter’s job easier, to the point of allowing the reporter to put his/her name to a story written by an insider and (b) schools of Journalism act as ideological filters.

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