A Man, a Dog, a 'Study' and Hurried, Gullible Reporters

A recent banner story on page 1 of The Enquirer's Local Life reported that Cincinnati Country Day was the second best high school in Ohio, based on passing percentage on state graduation tests and some yet-to-be revealed formula. The real story, if there

Dec 7, 2009 at 2:06 pm

A recent banner story on page 1 of The Enquirer's Local Life embraced the Sin of Parochialism with gusto and no hint of shame. It reported that Cincinnati Country Day was the second best high school in Ohio, based on passing percentage on state graduation tests and some yet-to-be revealed formula.

Even in this increasingly hyper-local news environment, boasting that an expensive local private high school is second best is curious until readers realize why the Enquirer story doesn’t name No. 1. It wasn’t from the Cincinnati area.

Rather, St. Charles Prep in Columbus topped the list. To learn that, you had to turn inside for the chart listing the top 10.

And that makes the focus on Country Day curious and curiouser. Seven Hills Upper School in Madisonville was third and five Cincinnati area schools were in the top 10. Now that’s a story, especially when one of them was Walnut Hills, a public high school.

This whole story was troubling for another reason. Was it newsworthy? The Enquirer identified Scott Gerber, a Columbus area semi-retired investor and father of two, as author of the rankings. If he’s a bigger player in the world of school rankings and research, we’re not told.

Even his rationale sounds light-hearted. He wants to promote “friendly (academic) competition” among schools, like that in sports. “As long as people do not get too serious abut it, then it is a win-win for everyone,” he says. The Enquirer flunks that test. I even wonder if Gerber meant for the paper to take him at all seriously, saying, “Thanks to the communications capabilities that we have today, it is possible that a guy and his dog working in a basement can do this.”

Can do what? Titillate a credulous reporter? Get his name in the paper? Give bragging rights to second best?

The Enquirer doesn’t explain what the points mean, so I’ll call them Gerber Points. St. Charles scored 116.6, Country Day 116 and Seven Hills 115.9. The last of the Top 10 scored 114.3. How big a deal can it be when the first and 10th schools are separated by 2.3 points?

Lacking Gerber’s formula, even less than stellar math students at those schools probably would have rounded up that statistically insignificant difference between Country Day and rival Seven Hills to a tie for second place. Moreover, Seven Hills was credited with an even higher percentage of test passes (100) than Country Day (98).

They’re both good schools. Our daughter received a fine education at Seven Hills. I’ve met too many Country Day students to question the quality of the education offered them. That’s not my point.

The state's top 10 included No. 6 Ursuline Academy, No. 8 Walnut Hills and No. 9 St. Xavier: two nonsectarian private schools, two Catholic schools and one public school. That’s a lot better story than Country Day and a passing acknowledgment that other Cincinnati area schools did well.

Dubious studies can make news, in part because shrunken reporting ranks mean fewer reporters have spent the years necessary to grasp the substance of their beats. It’s only going to get worse as partisans of myriad ideas and causes realize how needy the news media have become.

Part of the problem is the nonstop news cycle and too little news to fill online sites. There also are fewer people with time to dig into any researcher and methodology to assess newsworthiness. Anything with a letterhead commands at least initial attention. That’s no secret. It’s how hoaxers play "Gotcha!" with rushed reporters who assume anyone with the credibility to hold a news conference is legit.

To its credit, The Enquirer continues to have a team of education reporters. That’s why I’m surprised Gerber’s “study” survived their crap detector.

In a world where institutions game (or reject) the most famous and inexplicably prestigious national school rankings, this whole local affair says more about Enquirer credulity than about prep schools.

Curmudgeon Notes

• There is also evidence of an historic weakness in daily journalism in this Ohio high school rankings story (above). Sophisticated mathematics and social science survey methods are alien territory for most journalists. Computing simple percentages sometimes befuddles reporters (big number goes into small). That’s why many reporters still confuse the number of holiday traffic deaths and traffic death rates on holiday weekends.

• Parochialism also can be a virtue. The Enquirer’s Amanda Van Benschoten provides a smart local look at the global problem of anonymous online assaults with a story on attacks on the reputations of some Kentucky political candidates.

• No offense meant, but if it were April and not December I’d think this headline in Friday’s Business Courier was a wraparound humor edition: “Paper thrives, circ rises, readers profit.” Publisher Doug Bolton says Business Courier circulation rose 8.4 percemt in the past five years, and it makes sense: “It’s all about the ‘niche’ we hold, providing information you can’t find anywhere else..." That ability to identify and fill a niche also sustains CityBeat. Both cover local news that others do not, or do it better.

For years, our pride of place at The Enquirer was pricked every time a talented younger colleague left for the Business Courier (a weekly, for god’s sake!) for more fun and money. I think they’re all still there, having fun and making money.

• The most depressing news in months of news media woe comes from The Dallas Morning News, where, according to journalism news online sites, the daily is reorganizing about 11 business and content segments with sports and entertainment editors reporting to new general managers who are responsible for increasing ad revenue. A memo to Morning News staff says those two editors also will retain “a strong reporting relationship to the editor and managing editor.” Yeah, sure. That’s W-size bullshit.

The memo says this is the “next step toward becoming the most comprehensive and trusted partner for local businesses in attracting and retaining customers and continuing to generate important, relevant content for our consumers.” You’ll note that readers are absent from management’s rationale. This recalls a British colonial official’s infamous characterization of the “partnership” between blacks and whites as “horse and rider.”

It doesn’t take much imagination to guess who’s in the saddle at The Morning News. Top officials now are trying to persuade newsroom employees that they haven’t been sold out. It’s a classic executive case of claiming to be misunderstood. What’s to misunderstand?

• We don’t need paragraphs of background in every story; there isn’t time or space. Often missing is broader context in the continuing coverage of major issues. In all of the health insurance debate, too many stories focus on who will/won’t vote for what.

So here’s context I too rarely encounter: If health insurance reform stalls over abortion, how many people will die of undiagnosed and/or untreated illnesses because they lack coverage or access to life-saving medical care? That doesn’t disregard the moral basis of the anti-abortion argument, but it suggests that there is a price to be paid for purity, just as, abortion opponents argue, there is for abortion. Inaction is also a choice with consequences.

• Similarly, the news media do us no favor when they accept assurances of cost controls for health insurance reform. New technology, drugs and treatments will drive up costs unless Draconian rationing is imposed. Everyone who wants care will want more of it. Every time Congress accommodates voters’ demands for more/better/newer treatments, costs will rise and create the next plateau from which voters will launch new demands for better/newer treatments.

Sick people always will want more, not less care, and Congress knows that older Americans not only incur higher medical expenses — they're likelier to vote than younger working people.

• News media also have lost sight of the lack of primary care physicians to treat any of the millions of newly insured. If Congress continues to tell physicians that their education and efforts are worth lower payments every few years, more will refuse to accept patients covered by already low federal reimbursement.

• Finally, if you want context for this tea party, ask reporters to count everyone covered by federal insurance/medical programs. I’d start with the armed forces and dependents, veterans, Medicare recipients, senators and members of Congress, Supreme Court justices, civilian federal employees, etc. There are probably thousands or hundreds of thousands I’ve missed. Do we really want the federal government to keep its hands off our health insurance? Are the media hiding images of those folks demonstrating for an end to federal insurance/care and a demand for private insurance?

• Has anyone looked at a map of Afghanistan? Context tells us this isn’t Syria or Iraq. One doesn’t just load up 30,000 soldiers and drive in. The Khyber pass remains a choke point even if convoys can be protected as they roll north from the port of Karachi. We have no friends on any other Afghan borders and the country has no seaports. It’s landlocked. That means airlifts, especially if Obama sends another 30,000 troops, their equipment, munitions and supplies.

Do we have the aircraft and crews to do this? What is going to be the cost of the additional strain on our airlift capacity? Too much coverage ignores the time the new surge will take and the costs of equipment replacement and lifelong care for badly wounded who once would not have survived. That’s context.

• Afghanistan screams for context. Journalists ask politicians and generals, “Can we succeed?” I’d ask, what’s success? As with Iraq, Afghanistan is a model of mission creep: from breaking things and killing people to nation building. If the White House and Pentagon didn’t see this coming, we're in bigger trouble than we know. If they did, they lied to us and the news media let their assertions pass unchallenged.

• In the fuss about climate scientists’ hacked and testy e-mails, the news media missed an important point: Scientists can be argumentative, nevermore than when they hope to influence public policy and access to research-sustaining funds. Moreover, despite their commitment to open debate, they often can be rude to contrarians to the point they refuse to share data.

On the other hand, if these hacked emails demonstrate that some climate change advocates fiddled the numbers to support their cause, it becomes a far more damning event, approaching the theological position that “error has no rights.” The smartest appraisal of the content and fury over the emails came in last week’s Science section in The New York Times. It provides context.

• Last week, The Enquirer carried an Associated Press story on the lack of a national sex offender registry but how Ohio uniquely is going at with gusto. It was another case of missing context: Of all of the sex offenders registered in all of the states, how many offended against a child? How many who abused an adult later abused a child? If protecting children is the goal of this national near-hysteria, those numbers are vital to any effective — rather than emotional, reactive — public policy. It’s nothing novel for the news media to embrace the anti-pedophile campaigns without any distinctions among registered sex offenders and their offenses. An effective watchdog can tell a threat from a benign stranger.

• It’s no mystery why Tiger and Elin Woods and the couple who joined the White House party for the Indian prime minister dinner party were news: lovely blondes, exotic and rich husbands and vivid images. You want context? That’s context. Now only a decision to prosecute the “polo-playing” couple who posed with Obama, Biden and others at that White House event can keep their story alive ... unless she announces she had an affair with Woods. That line gets longer.

• Twitter is coming of age as a news source, joining YouTube with immediacy that print, cable and broadcast can't match in traditional way. Twitter forced itself into the conventional wisdom during the Islamic terrorist attack on Mumbai. Last week, The Seattle Times and Tacoma News Tribune learned how we can use this new social network as a news source. The Times tells Editor and Publisher that it recorded millions of views of tweets posted by its reporters covering the murder of four cops in Tacoma and the pursuit and killing of the suspected shooter.

At the smaller Tacoma daily, on whose turf the killings occurred, Doug Conarroe, the assistant managing editor for online, said reporters’ tweets went right on to the home page. He told CityBeat that the News Tribune’s Twitter and Facebook pages pulled 700,000 page views the day of the shooting.

“Our use of Twitter was focused primarily on the first 30 hours or so in getting the basic facts Tweeted," Conarroe said. "During a typical news day we're active on Facebook and Twitter and have about 20 automated feeds in addition to our main account at twitter.com/thenewstribune. When the manhunt switched to Seattle (where we had fewer people on the ground), our Twitter focus was on the crowdsourcing aspect — relying on Seattle citizens and media outlets to report police movements (and showing those Tweets on our homepage). One interesting outcome of the Seattle Twitter traffic was the police requesting (via Twitter) that folks not Tweet about police locations and movements. I remember this being an issue with police in the 1980s when TV started to cover things live.”