Frustrations with traditional journalism

More and more I turn to political blogs to find interesting information, data, and analysis — not newspapers. There are many reasons for this: blogs are more targeted to the issue areas I track, they are often shorter, and their analysis is usually deeper. On top of all of that, the way journalists are taught to carry out their craft is totally ridiculous. Consider a piece published in the New York Times this week titled “Education Gap Grows Between Rich and Poor, Studies Say.”

In the piece, the reporter describes some groundbreaking studies about the growth of the educational achievement gap between rich and poor kids. The gap between the standardized test scores of rich and poor kids has grown by 40 percent since the 1960s. The imbalance between rates of college completion between rich and poor kids has grown by 50 percent since the 1980s. Rich parents now spend nine times as much per child on educational spending than poor parents, up from five times as much in 1972. By the age of 6, rich kids have benefited from 400 more hours of literacy activities than poor kids.

This is all excellent information dutifully reported. Everything else about the article is utterly frustrating. If you have not quite figured out how to be a journalist, here is a quick rundown. Find some bit of information — a study, a government report, or an event — and then find two or more people to give conflicting thoughts on it, no matter how poorly developed or asinine the thoughts are. Put the quotes and information together, make sure you keep any analysis as superficial as possible, and then print it.

The reporter here followed all these steps. In deference to the journalist’s occupational cancer, balance bias, the reporter includes three perspectives that are totally unrelated to the studies and information being reported. The first counterbalancing commentator is James J. Heckman, an economist at the University of Chicago. Heckman’s view is that this clear-cut data that shows an obvious and growing connection between income inequality and education inequality might motivate the United States to put a stop to and even reverse its decades-long march to massive economic inequality. Heckman — who has no relationship to any of the research being included — is not a fan of that idea, and journalistic standards insist that we need to know what this irrelevant man has to say.

After Heckman, the reporter decided to drop the thesis of the critically disclaimed book from Charles Murray, an American Enterprise Institute hack. In the book, Murray argues that decaying white working class morals is what has really caused growing inequality. Is Charles Murray an expert on education policy, the achievement gap, or anything at all? No. But again, apparently his laughable view must be included.

Finally, the reporter decides to strangely include the vaguest commentary ever from Douglas J. Besharov, a fellow at the Atlantic Council. Besharov gets the coveted last line of the piece, which reads: “The problem is a puzzle, he said. ‘No one has the slightest idea what will work. The cupboard is bare.'” Nobody has the slightest idea what will work? Is this serious? Why is this in the story at all?

Predictably missing from the article are voices that point out the obvious: growing income inequality coincides with growing educational inequality because the former dominantly contributes to the latter. Therefore, we ought to reduce the income gap to reduce the achievement gap. That voice is totally absent. Instead, we are treated to a Chicago Boy economist, an AEI hack, and a man whose biggest contribution to the discussion is that he has no idea what to do.

And they wonder why people are turning to blogs for news and analysis.