Tag Archives: journalism

When Value-Added Means Being De-Valued

Saturday morning, when the cold reality of irresponsible journalism and public defamation smacked colleagues former and present alike in the face, several contacted me to share their disgust, embarrassment, and anger at having their names and faulty data in the newspaper.

A popular sentiment was a lack of desire to remain in the profession. I told each person the same thing: these numbers say nothing about the quality of teacher you are.

Unfortunately, the cavalier attitude of the “journalists” who printed the data and drew conclusions from it – despite the DOE counseling them strongly not to do so – was in a matter of hours able to sow doubt not only in the public’s faith in teachers, but teacher’s own doubts in themselves.

I maintain that the data provided is horribly flawed, and much more so by the inexcusable and unprofessional failures of the news outlets to lend any meaningful context to the scores, such as presenting class breakdowns of the number of students receiving free lunch or the number of English Language Learners (and their profiencies) each teacher tested.

When did it become trendy for a value-added measure to result in a teacher having their own value subtracted? I make no bones about standing by my colleagues in and out of school who are being painted as poor teachers and having their own sense of worth de-valued when something false is presented as truth.

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.

Yes, I’m a Grammar Snob

Long ago, I emailed the founder of this blog and commended him on how far he had taken his site (from just being popular among my friends to being featured nightly on regional sports telecasts). I was spurred to write to him, though, because I kept noticing typographical and grammatical errors in most of his posts. My point was that, since the site was becoming more popular, he should make an effort to be crisper in his writing, or else readers would think less of him and his site. (Can you tell I’m a bit of a grammar snob?)

He wrote back to say that the nature of his blog, which is often breaking news and quick posting, leaves him prone to errors.  I wanted to write back and say he could always edit after publishing and then update, but the tenor of his response led me to think that if I said that, the lines of communication would be closed.

Now that I’ve become a blogger, or at least someone who blogs on a regular basis, I am revisiting these concerns and thinking about fellow bloggers who put their words out there with mistakes. Some of my favorite blogs consistently challenge my thinking, inspire me, and simultaneously, leave me scratching my head wondering, “How can s/he publish this with THAT mistake?”

Again, I am a bit of a grammar snob.

This is not to say that I don’t make mistakes when I publish. Usually, I try to clean them up, but there is no doubt that many people  would be able to go through my posts and find a bevy of mistakes. (Someone even corrected me when they reposted. See the paragraph after the quote.) True, I don’t know every intricacy of written grammar rules, but I try to make sure I follow every one I do know.

I know I often start sentences with “but” or “and” and don’t always use a conjunction when making a list, but those are liberties I take with style. Failing to show proper subject-verb agreement is not about style.

Yes, I know, I’m a total grammar snob.

This is my point, though: if our online selves are a reflection of us (and I’ve really started to understand what it means to present yourself as an online brand) then isn’t it imperative that we use proper grammar in our blogs? I have written nearly 225 posts. That means there are 225 opportunities for someone to read my writing and say one of two things: 1) Wow, I love the message and he is a good writer, or 2) Wow, I love the message but he is a lousy writer.

Blogging is a public display. I think we need to treat our blogs as we treat our cover letters, letters of recommendation, and anything else that requires top writing performances. With so many eyes on what we write, doesn’t it behoove us to project our best image of ourselves?

Journalist/Doctor Debate

See? I’m not the only one with this debate on my mind. And it’s not as open and shut a case as you might think. (Side note: Howard Kurtz, who anchors CNN’s Reliable Sources, was a professor at University of Maryland when I was there, and might still be. He was regarded as one of the top 5 professors in the journalism school, but I was never lucky enough to be in his class).

Unfortunately, since it’s only one woman’s perspective, there’s not really much debate here. Kurtz could definitely push her harder on these questions but it’s clear which side he’s on.

Click here to see the video, courtesy of CNN.com.

Sobering, Saddening News

I just received news that a classmate of mine, who I went to school with from elementary school through college, has passed away.

I have three significant memories of Robin Sillau.

She lived up the block from me when we were younger, and one day her mom took her to the park and my dad took me. We ran into each other and played. This was almost 20 years ago in second grade.

I always thought there was some kind of academic connection between me and Robin. We were in the same class from second to eighth grade. By high school, we no longer had classes together, but it turned out that she and I wound up being the only two graduates in our class of nearly 800 to attend the University of Maryland (both as journalism majors, no less). We had one class together there, and I always got a kick out of seeing her on campus. It was like a little secret we shared coming from the same HS and the same block.

Finally, a couple of years ago, through Facebook, my fifth grade class and I all got nostalgic about the old elementary school days, and we got a dialogue going. Finally, someone asked the inevitable – “So, when are we getting together?” – and Robin was the first to volunteer her apartment as a place to meet. About 20 of us went to the reunion and had a great time.

It’s weird. I’ve been wondering lately about suggesting we have another reunion, and I felt pretty sure Robin would again offer us her apartment. Now, the next time our group meets, she’ll be a focal point in a much different, much worse way.

My heart goes out to her mother and fiance’.

Haiti Horrors Renew Journalism Debate

As an undergrad, I studied broadcast journalism and saw myself someday working in the radio side of the industry. I really enjoyed journalism but came to realize that as fun as it might be, there was nothing tangible to motivate me. There was no reciprocation of my work that could motivate me. Seeing my name in print, hearing my voice, and eeing my face on tv could sustain the professional side of me, but were not going to be factors that could sustain the human side of me. So I abandoned journalism for teaching (the right move and one I’d make a million times again).

Anyway, one of the most interesting facets of my journalism education was the ethical side of it. My journalism ethics class was fascinating, and I am reminded of the most spirited discussion we had in the class. The debate was about the journalist’s obligation to journalism versus the obligation to humanity. Our talk centered on Kevin Carter’s Pulitzer winning photograph, taken in the Sudan, of a seemingly malnourished and dying baby lined up in the sights of a vulture, clearly about to become the bird’s prey. When Carter ended his life at age 33, not two years after snapping the photo, many felt that he did so as a response to the internal battle his conscience was waging with his professional obligation to report the news objectively.

Photo by Kevin Carter

The question was posed to us: As a journalist, what should the photographer have done? Should he have snapped the photo and left the baby there (as he did)? Or, should he have snapped the photo and taken the baby to safety? To me this is the essence of my frustration with journalists.

Now, I will be totally forthright in saying that I have purposely avoided watching coverage of the disaster in Haiti. It’s not that, a) I’m not fascinated by large scale news stories like this, or b) that I am indifferent to the plight of the devastated Haitian community. Rather, it’s the combination of those factors that keeps me away: I am worried that if I inhale the nonstop coverage, I will become indifferent to the crying, screaming, and endless piles of bodies. And if I did that, I would cease being myself.

Despite not having watched much coverage, I have read a little. And today, I read online in the New York Times that some reporters were overstepping the bounds of professionalism as they covered the story. Don’t get me wrong, it’s good to see humanity from these otherwise ruthless individuals. Yet there is a significant part of me that feels, in a very traditional sense, that the journalist’s role is to give us, “just the facts, please.”

By the end of the Kevin Carter debate back in college, I was one of a smattering of people holding out on one side of the issue. While most said Carter should have removed the baby from harm, I argued that what he did – as a journalist – was totally proper. Had he helped the baby, he would have been interfering in the story. My human heart told my professional heart it was crazy, but I am one of the ones who feels that in the field of journalism, you are a journalist first and a human being second. That’s one of the reasons I wanted out. (From Time: Carter was painfully aware of the photojournalist’s dilemma. “I had to think visually,” he said once, describing a shoot-out. “I am zooming in on a tight shot of the dead guy and a splash of red. Going into his khaki uniform in a pool of blood in the sand. The dead man’s face is slightly gray. You are making a visual here. But inside something is screaming, ‘My God.’ But it is time to work. Deal with the rest later. If you can’t do it, get out of the game.”)

People will read this and say I am a dreadful soul. However, I truly believe that journalists exist to just tell a story. It’s not the journalist’s duty to do anything else, and, in fact, becoming involved diminishes the credibility of the reporter and the organization.

This brings me to another issue I pondered today. In the above linked column, I also read that CNN was airing footage of Dr. Sanjay Gupta running through the streets to help a victim, showing it ad infinitum while he was speaking, effectively making him part of the story, if not the story itself. What service is done showing Gupta this way? He is only one doctor dealing with an overwhelming situation. It also made me wonder what role he is serving in Haiti. Is he a doctor or a reporter? Can you be both?

The line is so fine in journalism now that hardly any truly objective outlets still exist. Am I stuck in a time warp when I complain that journalists are allowing themselves to be human? Maybe I am.

Let me just be clear. I think any human being sincerely showing compassion and aiding the recovery efforts in Haiti – and doubling as a journalist – is a good person. As a journalist in the purest sense of the job, though, it might be time to reconsider your role.

I realize these may be unpopular opinions, yet I’ll stand by them. That’s just the world as I see it.

It’s a time for all of us to open our wallets and give any amount to the Red Cross that we can. The earthquake will come to define Port-au-Prince and Haiti for decades, and we have a responsibility, from our comfortable, safe homes, to assist with what we can. Please donate.