An Absence of Journalistic Integrity: Data Without Context


It’s finally hitting the fan.

I am sitting here, watching with ever-intensifying disgust, as reporters from the NY Times, Schoolbook and WNYC tweet out teacher data reports of their choosing. They are doing what we’ve all been cautioned not to: interpret the data as sound and meaningful and as the only measure of a teacher’s value.

I’m going to take the high road and not use any names. Suffice it to say, though, the line separating sensationalism from journalism has been badly blurred. How else do you explain a tweet linking to a school that is being phased out and has “below average” teachers? Within three minutes, using records easily searchable online, I discovered that 99% of the students there receive free lunch. The context makes those numbers a bit more meaningful, no? Amazing what a little (and I mean little) research can do for a story.

Maybe I should have stuck with journalism.

I feel for my colleagues, both in my school and out, whose names are linked now to numbers that tell nothing about the true challenges and triumphs of their work.

What can provide a more accurate picture of why numbers are what they are? Anecdotes and discussions with people in the schools or numbers compiled on a web site from those sitting in the ivory tower of “journalism?”

Schoolbook is asking for teachers to go ahead and defend themselves in an attempt to let teachers clear their names by lending context to the numbers. They’ve approached me for my input (although I do not have a report).

Here’s my input regardless: The numbers are already out there. From here on, it’s all going to be damage control. Releasing the numbers and names without the stories was irresponsible, unethical, and potentially devastating to careers and livelihoods. Teachers will now be forced to play catch up. If numbers don’t lie, as so many people believe, then each data report should be accompanied by demographic breakdowns by school and by teacher (students receiving special education services, number of English Language Learners, number of students receiving free lunch, etc.) But no – that would mean the numbers would have to wait. Couldn’t have that happen, could we?

Masquerading the numbers as news is unfair. Journalists are supposed to be objective. Pushing ahead with a story before responsibly compiling relevant data with the opinions and concerns of those being persecuted is just plain wrong.

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