In The Elements of Journalism, Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel quote their award-winning peer Jack Fuller to confirm what citizens and journalists consistently believe to be the purpose of the trade: “(To) provide citizens with the information they need to be free and self governing.”
I wonder how Fuller would elucidate that general principle regarding education injustice and racial inequality.
In other words, what is the free press to black students?
If journalists express a bias, they reinforce stereotypes in their pursuit of truth. The oft-cited 2000 crime study by Travis L. Dixon and Daniel Linz reported what most African American citizens already know through experience. “African-Americans were overrepresented as perpetrators, and Latinos and whites were underrepresented as perpetrators.” Another report produced by The National Hispanic Media Coalition found media and news reporting strongly influence both negative and positive stereotypes of Hispanics and Latinos.
According to a report by the non-profit group ColorOfChange, every local major television network affiliate station in New York City is consistently over-representing black people as perpetrators of crime by “inaccurately exaggerating the proportion of black people involved in crime — on average, exaggerating by 24 percentage points.”
The consequences of way-out reporting impact how teachers and administrators view black students (as potential criminals). New York City has reported fewer student suspensions and expulsions, but WNYC reported the rate is still higher for black and Latino students who comprise 68 percent of the total student population, saying, “The proportion of black and Latino students suspended remained 87 percent, the same as the previous year.”
While studies have given crime reporting much needed sunlight, education reporting has not always received the same scrutiny. Journalists are socialized in the same environments as police officers and teachers. Bias will show up in the specialized work that we do.
This is why student protesters at the University of Missouri blocked photojournalist Tim Tai from documenting their encampment and work for fear the reports may perpetuate bias. Students chanted, “Hey hey, ho ho, reporters have got to go!” The students’ demands for safe space reflect the belief that reporting will do harm to black students chances of being free and self-governing.
In many ways, Twitter has become the free press for underrepresented groups. Blacks use Twitter at higher rates. Pew reported in 2014 that “22 percent of online blacks are Twitter users, compared with 16 percent of online whites.” In particular, #blacktwitter has pursued truth in ways that forced journalists to follow. From Trayvon Martin to Mike Brown, black twitter collectively combed through public documents with a fine-tooth comb of righteousness and snark.
The blessing and curse of Twitter is that it doesn’t have the editorial filters that good news organizations vigorously enforce. Other media also don’t fill the role of journalists. Blogs are still personal logs that also lack editorial controls that make sense of information. Then there are the trolls – people who seek out argument or whose interactions are close-minded and agenda driven – to attack anyone who thinks differently.
Let’s be clear. Trolling is far from journalism. In fact, trolling an issue doesn’t even represent advocacy. Real advocates acknowledge tradeoffs, shortcoming and challenge government. For instance in education reform, trolling has blindly supported charter schools, choice and specific superintendents.
All these platforms serve a purpose, but journalism fulfills a unique and important role in a democracy. That is why black students need quality journalism. The main questions remain. What information about education disparities do people need in order to be free and self-governing? What specifically do black and brown families need to know to eliminate racial injustice revealed through educational disparities? What do white people need to know?
In recent years, some news organizations, including The Hechinger Report, have ramped up their focus on solutions-oriented reporting in education, with the belief that reporting on what’s working can ultimately evoke more change than just focusing on problems. Hechinger last year partnered with the Solutions Journalism Network to create a toolkit for solutions reporting.
When it comes to education inequity, the “who” of the story is often minimized. As James Baldwin said, “Well, if one really wishes to know how justice is administered in a country, one does not question the policemen, the lawyers, the judges, or the protected members of the middle class. One goes to the unprotected — those, precisely, who need the law’s protection most! — and listens to their testimony.”
The testimonies of black and brown students and their parents are uncultivated.
Baldwin probably wouldn’t endorse the rhetoric that is often used by white led educational organizations that promote parent or student voice as a backhanded tactic to delegitimize labor unions. Trolling can come in many different forms. However, “advocacy journalism” is the moniker people have given themselves to skirt standards and principles that make the free press worthy of being in the Constitution.
There’s a black public witnessing of education injustice that can help reporters get to the core truth. Too often researchers, public officials and think tank heads disseminate facts that may not necessarily convey the truths that concern black folk. The coverage around the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina typified this phenomenon. The question of “are charter schools working” provided a particular frame in which subsequent reporting only legitimated the muckety mucks of education – not the students, parents and former teachers who need their voices to be moved to solutions. I’ve argued that achievement gap language and research has done more to embolden people in power than embolden teachers or children – the people who need uplift.
The great reporter Edward R. Murrow said, “We cannot make good news out of bad practice.”
It’s time to deploy more reporters away from the know-it-alls and direct them to untapped solutions –those who have gained knowledge through the experience of depending on public education.
This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news website focused on inequality and innovation in education. Read more columns by Andre Perry.