Thursday, March 16, 2017

More Evidence of Media Bias

Last month (2/23), I shared a story about media bias and fake news.

Now comes another story ... this time in the USA Today edition within the Fort Myers News-Press ... headlined College degrees elude charter students. [By the way, the online version at this link changed the headline that was in our local paper.]

Why does this story illustrate media bias?

Because, using the information contained in this story, I could write a news piece leading to a headline just the opposite. My lead could be “Statistics show that low income graduates of charter schools graduate from college 2.55 times more frequently than graduates of public schools.”

Let’s look at the USA Today story as printed:

  • “Like many charter school networks, the Los Angeles-based Alliance College-Ready Public Schools boast eye-popping statistics: 95% of their low-income students graduate from high school and go on to college. Virtually all qualify to attend California state universities.
  • “Its name notwithstanding, the network’s own statistics suggest that few Alliance alumni are actually ready for the realities — academic, social and financial — of college. The vast majority drop out. In all, more than three-fourths of Alliance alumni don’t earn a four-year college degree in the six years after they finish high school.
  • “Statistics for charter schools as a whole are hard to come by, but the best estimate puts charters’ college persistence rates at around 23%.
  • “To be fair, the rate overall for low-income students – the kind of students typically served by charters – is even worse: just 9%. For low-income, high-minority urban public schools, most comparable to charters, the rate is 15%.”
Wait a minute ... let me re-read that last paragraph. Yes, despite the headline, the story 6 paragraphs in, tells us that the likelihood of charter school graduates to finish college is 2.55 times (23% divided by 9%) more likely than similar graduates of public schools.

Here’s more from the USA Today story:
  • “In many ways, the college-persistence problem is not just a charter school problem, but one that afflicts low-income students more generally. In 2013, the Pell Institute for the Study of Opportunity in Higher Education, a Washington, D.C.-based research group, found that students from the USA’s lowest-income families were about one-eighth as likely as the wealthiest students to have a bachelor’s degree by age 24. For the wealthiest, the rate was 77%. For the poorest? Just 9%.
  • “The 9% figure is ‘just epically disappointing,’ said Katie Duffy, Democracy Prep’s CEO. ‘A high school diploma is just not going to get our kids to the point where they can have resources and live that life of civic engagement.’”
So, the USA Today story demonstrates that students of low income families graduate from college at far lower rates than students from wealthy families regardless of the type of high school they attend.

But, the USA Today headline gives readers a far different viewpoint ... one suggesting that charter school students fail more frequently.

Based on the facts within this story, the headline could have said “Charter school graduates graduate college more than twice as often as public school graduates.”

Is this bias intentional or accidental? As someone who began his career as a reporter and who has worked with the media for decades, I don’t know.

This media bias ... where the media seeks a story that fits their point of view ... is not new and not focused just on President Trump or conservatives.

During a 100-plus degree day in St. Louis in 1980, I received a call from a reporter at the local ABC television station.

“We’re doing a story on the drought. Could you give me names and phone numbers of some local farmers that I can interview?”

After giving her five names, I said, “If you can’t reach any of them, call me back and I’ll get you some more.”

Well, about an hour later she called to ask for more names. I asked, “You couldn’t reach any of them?

“Oh, I did,” she said. “But, the drought has not impacted any of them. I suggested to my news editor that we do a story that the Midwestern drought has not yet hit the St. Louis area.”

But, she said, the news editor responded, “We want a drought story, see if you can find some farmers further west in Missouri that have been hit by the drought.”

So I gave her names of farmers and numbers in Central Missouri. The station flew a helicopter with the reporter and her crew about a 100 miles west and that evening aired a story about the drought impacting Missouri farmers ... with no mention that the drought had not yet reached St. Louis area farmers.

That, folks, is media bias.

A pre-determined decision on the focus of the news story and an intentional action to find the story they want ... even if it doesn’t totally fit reality.

So, as you consume the news, be aware that – regardless of politics – nearly all “news” stories have some bias built in.

And, the next time you read about charter schools not meeting goals, dig further to see if the story is biased.

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