News reporters with zero experience in education should leave the reporting to those who have a clue — educators. Instead, print and broadcast media outlets routinely trust misinformed, generalist reporters who are easily manipulated by lobbyists and special interest groups via strategic public relations campaigns. Texas children, teachers, and parents pay the price as misguided reporting directly influences public support for toxic education policies.
Case in point: Texas Districts Push to Extend the School Year appeared in the online version of The Houston Chronicle this week. The headline certainly grabbed my attention along with that of many of my educator friends. And so I read on… What I found was beyond frustrating: news reporting on critical education policy that was most likely copied and pasted from a press release.
The lead takes the cake.
AUSTIN — Texas lawmakers are thinking about giving school districts money to lengthen the school year, and superintendents are for it.
By the time I finish reading the headline and the first sentence of the piece, here is what I have learned as a reader: School districts in Texas want an extended school year. Lawmakers are considering a longer year but they aren’t certain. Superintendents across the state support a longer school year. The sky is falling! The sky is falling!
Hold that terrifying thought while we review some background…
Prior to entering the world of education, I spent about 15 years as a writer and editor for a variety of media outlets. At the time, print newspapers were still alive and kicking. The emergence of online news was certainly a concern, but the Internet had yet to inflict much damage on print media outlets.
Here’s the thing about being a rookie news reporter. Most news reporters are “generalists.” They are trained to collect information, conduct interviews, and write hard news — the basics of journalism. Upon entering the profession, they are assigned a “beat” (an area of coverage), but seldom will you find news reporters at mid-sized newspapers like The Houston Chronicle or The Dallas Morning News who specialize in a specific content area — education veteran covering education or lawyer covering crime and courts.
The learning curve is often too much to overcome, so reporters do whatever it takes to produce copy quickly and efficiently by seeking help from outside sources.
And in steps the almighty press release. Hard news reporters rely upon communications departments, public relations writers, and marketing specialists to fill the gaps.
This strategy isn’t always a bad thing. A press release can simply be a way to notify the newspaper of an upcoming or recent event. Problems arise, however, when the press release is used by special interests to further a cause, and in a rush to meet a deadline or byline quota, the reporter fails to do his or her due diligence.
In today’s under-staffed newsroom, the toxicity of the “press release shortcut” now infects more than the rookie reporter; veterans who should know better are no longer immune. The reporter who wrote the extended school year article, for example, is certainly no rookie — at least not according to the qualifications listed in her bio on the Chronicle’s website.
How does this look in a newsroom?
Reporter receives an email from a school district’s communications department. The email includes a press release complete with a suggested headline and quote — and sometimes accompanying photographs, depending on the nature of the story. The reporter then re-writes the press release, adding a few supporting facts and maybe a quote or two he or she managed to obtain via a couple of quick phone calls. Presto! The magic of pseudo journalism!
The implications for education policy are disastrous. Misinformed generalist reporters across the nation are inadvertently acting as public relations specialists for lawmakers, education market reformers, and others whose aim is to dismantle public education, de-professionalize teaching, and pour public dollars into the coffers of greedy corporations.
And that brings us back to the misleading article.
“We’re not keeping our students long enough throughout the year,” Dr. Xavier De La Torre, a superintendent in El Paso, told the committee on Tuesday. He represents the state’s largest school districts for the Texas Urban Council of Superintendents, including Houston, Dallas, San Antonio and Fort Worth.
I find it disturbing an education reporter from Houston, who claims Houston ISD supports an extended school year, failed to interview the superintendent of Houston ISD. I can infer from this misstep the writer most likely relied on information she received from a press release or communications department — sources obviously advocating for a longer school year.
The article states “several superintendents testified,” but De La Torre, the superintendent of Ysleta Independent School District (another fact not mentioned in the piece), is the only source quoted in the story. The writer refers to him as a representative of the states’s largest school districts — Houston, Dallas, San Antonio, and Fort Worth. In short, she implies by omission of information superintendents at the largest school districts support a longer school year.
Maybe they do. Maybe they don’t. We don’t know because apparently the newspaper failed to contact any of them. Irresponsible at best.
The article’s closing line is just as infuriating as its first:
So far, the three top leaders in state government have made no push for extending the school day, instead focusing on other initiatives such as boosting pay for teachers.
Here is what I can infer from the closing line of the article: Texas Districts Push to Extend the School Year is not a story. It was contrived from either a press release or a nudge from a niche group of education “reformers.” Even the article makes clear state lawmakers are focused on ruining education in other ways — merit pay tied to standardized testing (or as the Chronicle calls it, “boosting pay for teachers”).
And so… I have some unanswered questions:
- If “districts” are pushing for an extended school year and “superintendents” are all for it, who the hell are they?
- Does De La Torre speak directly for the superintendents of Dallas, Fort Worth, San Antonio, and Houston ISD? Do they all support adding 30 instructional days to the school year?
- Did news reporter Andrea Zelinski attend the hearing? If not, how many sources did she contact and who were they?
- Did Zelinski generate most of this piece from a press release she received either from The Texas Urban Council of Superintendents or from another group?
- If the aforementioned school districts do not support an extended school year, when will the Houston Chronicle run either a retraction or clarification?
I attempted to contact Zelinski via phone and email but had no luck reaching her. Repeated calls to the paper’s city desk line went unanswered. I also left a detailed voicemail message for the Chronicle’s reader representative regarding the need for a clarification (and requesting a return call). No response.
Newspapers like the Chronicle and Dallas Morning News are shells of what they once were. Newsrooms once bustling with hundreds of reporters and editors have now been reduced to a small handful of staff writers. As a result, reporters are under even more pressure to churn out copy quickly and efficiently.
But being under-staffed and overworked is no excuse. Public education is under attack. Those who control the ink have a great responsibility to revise and edit their words and ideas with extra care in order to ensure fairness and accuracy. Get it right, or stop meddling in education policy.
UPDATE: an ABC affiliate confirmed my suspicions tonight when they ran the same story almost word for word. This article was most likely generated from a press release with little to no actual journalism involved.
Here is a link to the Houston Chronicle article:
5 thoughts on “Extended school year hype most likely spurred by press release shortcut”
I’ll save this post for my Sunday Morning Christian Formation Class. We were talking about that last Sunday while discussing the gift of discernment. The Pastor asked what trustworthy news source did we use. The consensus was we didn’t for two reasons. News has shown to be untrustworthy as far back as Randolph Hurst and the Cuban land grab. News was used to sway public opinion to support war. But since the internet it is far worse, I judge based on googling the writer. I google the writers name and see where their personal interest and biases lie by skimming other things they have written. and things that the are interested in. Sometimes I enter their name and the word “ political activist”. Many times writers are immigrants or first generation and have a different overall world view. Sometimes I find interesting things on the person. Most news I ignore because it is upsetting outright lies or sensationalism. One of my Sunday classmates said that for TV news it was a little better if watched in off peak times but gets worse with the lies during prime time ratings. Actually, you are the one that taught me to trace back to original sources to understand what is behind something. Only back then we were referring to the founding of various denominations at HMM. But I have used it to learn history and understand politics and news trends as well. From what you write about this article it seems the bottom dollar is the main cause since there are few writers doing all the work. This is true, but there seems to be a trend as well to support more and more lobby groups through misinformation. Bad articles like his one are sometimes used to support removing public school funding and promote charter schools, thus removing quality education from poor and middle class. There is not enough emphasis in public education on teaching critical thinking skills. To get the truth, a person reading this article would have to call Dallas or Houston Superintendents or google Superintendent names and dates and see if they have made public statements in other recent articles. If I want to know United States news, I google the BBC and other outside sources. They may not be accurate either, but they have less vested political interest in USA politics with the exception of RT. (wink) Unfortunatly most overworked Americans don’t have time to research the news. But as a teacher, if all you do is impart critical thinking, you will have done a generation a favor.
You might have know me back at HMM as L. Gunter. I was bored one day and found your writing blog. I’m interested in learning to write in retirement. Sorry, to write an essay. News is a personal peeve. But to summarize for your students,
1. Google the writer, past articles and personal interests or affiliations.
2. Google the topic to see if opposing views are written by other writers.
3. Google outside sources that may have less of a vested interest.
The truth is usually an obscured happy medium of the differences.
4. Of it is something important or urgent contact people in the story, ie. in this case metro city ISD’s.
You still add good value to the world, Darren! Great work!
Omgosh! Hi, L! I remember you! Been a long time. Thank you for looking me up. And I appreciate the thoughtful and insightful comment. You give some powerful tips to help readers discern between reality and fairy tales. Thank you for sharing. 🙂
Google Hilde Lysiak. I haven’t had time to thoroughly research her but her story gives me hope for journalism. She is a 12 year old journalist who started journalism at 9. She is the child of a journalist and takes a stand for only covering news with facts. When asked her personal opinion on the border wall she refused. It is against her conviction to give opinion. She said the problem with journalists is they need to get out there and get off their computers. Tough kid! I think she is worth sharing with students and anyone for that matter if she is what she is portrayed to be. Will have to check her out more and follow. I like that she is willing to stand for truth.
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Thanks for he acknowlegment, Darren. Good to see ya. Miss my homies in Dallas back in the day. We had passion for what was right and good even if we weren’t perfect. I’m in Mississippi now and not finding that kind of passion in people. I’ll keep digging though. Thanks for the brain candy.
Good to hear from you, too, Linda! I’m glad to hear you’re well and still fighting the good fight. 🙂