‘Free of other people’s inventions’–A case for diversity–not ‘objectivity’ in the newsroom

Oh, let’s start with a quote, shall we?

Tridib said that we could not see without inventing what we saw, [and so] if we didn’t try ourselves, we would never be free of other people’s inventions.

That line comes from the narrator in Amitav Ghosh’s novel, The Shadow Lines, a beautiful book about nationality and heritage and the borders we draw to separate ourselves from “others.”

The quote is on my mind now because I am thinking about diversity. And bias. And the places where we get our information. An ongoing debate among citizens and journalists alike concerns whether or not we should–or even can–expect “objectivity” from those charged with the responsibility of delivering to us the world’s news. One camp (and for the sake of full disclosure, I should say that this camp is the one that I reside in) argues that “objectivity” is a myth–no news coverage can be stripped of all possible slant, and that fact in and of itself does not make slanted coverage immediately irresponsible or unreliable.  Those on the other side of the debate disagree, arguing that “objective” journalism is not only possible but essential for a democracy; only with objective journalism can citizens come to their own conclusions about the issues and events of the day.

What is especially odd to me about this debate is that it seems to be entirely rooted in politics: Does it matter if a journalist donates money to a political campaign? If a journalist attends the Rally for Sanity, can we expect unbiased coverage from that reporter on issues related to, say, presidential campaigns or Supreme Court decisions?  Given our two-party system in which “objectivity” in the press usually means representing the proverbial “both sides” of a debate, it’s not surprising that the objectivity/subjectivity argument has broken down along these lines.  Never mind that most issues have more than “two sides” or two ways of thinking about them; a reader needs only to look at the comment section of virtually any reputable news organization to see a wealth of perspectives and good ideas that have not been represented in the given reporting.

Because I tend not to believe in objectivity, I am very much concerned with diversity.  When people complain about Fox News or MSNBC, the complaints have less to do with one reporter or news anchor and more to do with the fact that the organization as a whole seems to be one big exercise in groupthink, and thereby each is less a news organization and more a political mouthpiece (or, even worse, a flat-out propaganda engine).  Other news organizations might do a better job appearing objective by more skillfully stripping their politics from their news reports, but they seem still to be suffering from diversity of perspective. Recently I attended an ONA Bay Area meetup, and  what immediately struck me was how incredibly white the crowd was. The Bay Area of my daily life is far, far, far more diverse than what I observed at this gathering; if these folks were representative of the amount of diversity in Bay Area newsrooms, I think that’s problematic. And I don’t think this is a Bay Area problem; I’ve also seen news orgs I follow on Facebook posting photos of their launch parties or member gatherings or blogger meetups, and every time I am shocked by how few people of color there are in the photos. There is just something very strange (and very concerning) to me about a newsroom that looks nothing like the communities that it purports to cover.

Much was made of Sonia Sotomayor’s remark that “Personal experiences affect the facts that judges choose to see.” I think the same can be said of journalists. Every semester, my students undertake a project in which I require them to choose a given issue or group or major story and then research how various news media report on that issue or group or story. A popular topic for students to choose is immigration (perhaps because many of my students are immigrants themselves), and every time when I am helping them sort through the news articles they’ve chose, I’m alarmed at how often they find information with a disturbingly “immigrant as ‘other’ ” slant. I have been similarly disturbed by the raw data students have collected when researching such topics as the Oscar Grant murder trial and articles related to murders of gay teens. I have no doubt that to the authors –and their editors–these articles read as “objective,” simply reporting “the facts.” But my students, trained to critically analyze the language and the information selected in each story, overwhelmingly find a decided lack of objectivity. What they say helps them feel truly informed, then, is reading a variety of publications to get a more diverse look at one particular topic. And here’s where the quote that began this post comes in: whenever we tell a story, we are “inventing what we saw.” The more perspectives we turn to as storytellers and as “story-hearers,” the more we free ourselves “of other people’s inventions.”

Of course, most people agree that it’s a good idea not to get all your information from one source. And we believe in that maxim for exactly this reason: diversity matters. We all bring our individual life experiences with us every time we observe–and then report on–the world around us. It makes sense, then, for news orgs to devote themselves not to the myth of objectivity, but to the goal of diversity and the power that diverse perspectives bring to any newsroom–and thereby to the communities they seek to cover.

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Waiting for the rest of the movie: Why Waiting for Superman was an unfinished film at best

It’s really a bummer when a film you’ve looked forward to seeing for months turns out to be a huge disappointment. but that was the case for me when I saw Waiting for Superman. The documentary seeks to highlight the increasing ineffectiveness of public school systems throughout the United States, and to illustrate the harm these failing schools are doing to our kids–and by extension to our society as a whole, which suffers the effects of a poorly-educated populace: higher crime rates, entrenched poverty, and–according to the film–not enough skilled workers to fill the professional jobs of the future.

I was excited to see Waiting for Superman because I, too, am worried about the current state of education in this country, and I was especially thrilled that the timing of the release landed the movie in theaters just as the public consciousness of problems plaguing our schools has been raised, via articles in the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, NPR, and a variety of other outlets.   I would love to see this national discussion we’re having–fractured though it may be–gain in momentum so that we may begin to address the problems that currently plague school districts throughout the country.

Unfortunately, though, Waiting for Superman adds nothing to this national discussion because all the movie offers is an incredibly simplistic look at a very complex problem.  If Davis Guggenheim, who directed the film, is to be believed, our educational system has deteriorated solely because tenure and teachers unions have kept horrible teachers in the classroom for far too long.

When I wrote about the Los Angeles Times’ series on teacher effectiveness, I noted that far too often bad teachers are able to retain their jobs.  But we also have a problem of teacher retention in this country.  According to the National Commission on Teaching & America’s Future, nearly a third of new teachers leave the profession within their first three years of teaching, and by the time those teachers are five years into what would otherwise be their career, 20 percent more will have up and bailed on teaching.  So five years after getting their first teaching job, half of these teachers will no longer be in the classroom.  Clearly the activism of the union and the promise of tenure have failed to lure these educators into a lifelong commitment to the profession. Continue reading

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Schooled by the L.A. Times: The good, the bad, and the ugly of ‘Who’s teaching L.A.’s Kids?’

Fidelibus is a ‘no b.s.’ type of person.

That’s how one student described me in my most recent set of student evaluations–assessments from those enrolled in my ENG 214 (Sophomore Composition) class at San Francisco State this past spring–my last, in fact, as I am leaving teaching.

I begin this post with those words because they tell you something about me–as a person and as a teacher.  It is true that I hate b.s.–I hate hearing it, and I refuse to spout it to other people.  That is partly why I had a reputation of being a “hard grader” among my students: I insisted that any work earning a C grade in my class was truly competent, and any grade earning higher than a C was indeed quite strong, or–in the case of an A–truly excellent.

I taught writing at SF State for nine years, and during that time, I also taught a semester at Lowell High School and a year at Berkeley High.  Before I came to San Francisco, I was a teacher’s assistant in two public high schools in San Diego. I have spent nearly all of my adult life thus far working in education–and that is to say nothing of the 23 full years I spent as a student–from elementary school through graduate school and a year spent earning my teaching credential for secondary ed.

As you might expect, all of this time spent in schools has led me to form some opinions about education–about what works and why and what doesn’t.  So when the Los Angeles Times published a story on Sunday titled, “Who’s teaching L.A.’s kids?”, I read it with a good deal of interest. Continue reading

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Scenes from the Fort Mason Community Garden

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After Off the Grid this past Friday, we found ourselves in the Fort Mason Community Garden.  I had never been there before, and I could have stayed for hours wandering between each of the lovingly-tended gardens.  I couldn’t help taking pictures of the many beautiful flowers there (especially dahlias, which are a favorite of mine); I also loved the various items people placed in their plots as garden ornaments.  The whole place is gorgeous and peaceful; definitely stop by for a visit next time you’re in the area.

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Emily Bazelon tries to explain ‘What really happened to Phoebe Prince,’ but finds many readers don’t trust her account

Emily Bazelon’s recent series of articles for Slate seeks to answer the question: “What really happened to Phoebe Prince?”.  In her series, Bazelon offers readers a far more nuanced look at Phoebe Prince and the students who bullied her than readers got from most of the other media outlets that covered the story of Prince’s suicide.  Readers learn from the first article in Bazelon’s series that Phoebe had been troubled long before she was bullied by classmates at South Hadley High–long before, in fact, she had even left Ireland, the country where she was born and raised.

The more complicated, more nuanced, and ultimately more human Phoebe that emerges from Bazelon’s reporting on the case is one whose suicide was perhaps more the result of a deeper mental illness and less the product of verbal attacks–in person and online–from classmates who did not like her.

While Bazelon is to be commended for providing far more information and far more depth in her articles than many in the media provided in theirs, her series is not without its problems.  Continue reading

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Imperfect Pitch: Men, Women, and the Art of Selling Ourselves

This morning, Choire Sicha at  The Awl wrote a post titled, How Men and Women Pitch Stories: A Disturbing Sampling, in which he illustrates with examples how men and women differ in their pitches to The Awl.  In one “Inquiry letter from a man” that Sicha quotes in his piece, the sender writes, “Do you take pitches? Should I just write something and send it? Do I have to tickle the balls? I want to write for the awl, dammit.”  Sicha then compares this letter to a sample “Inquiry letter from a woman” who says, “As [a] long-time admirer of your site (and non-too-frequent registered commenter), I’ve been too shy to pitch as I’ve never felt like my work measured up to your fine standards.”

So the male quoted here has a sense of entitlement (“I want to write for the awl, dammit.”), while the female seems almost embarrassed to be offering her pitch (“I’ve never felt like my work measured up to your fine standards.”)

Sicha notes that it probably is “not bad that many people [in this case, the women] are polite and self-deprecating!” and says he understands where that’s coming from, confessing (hilariously) that even he has “a tendency to file stories to editors with the preface ‘HERE IS MY GARBAGE, SORRY.’ ” Continue reading

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When D-Bags Attack: The Citibank ‘Hot Girl’ Firing

This past Tuesday, the Village Voice asked, “Is This Woman Too Hot to Be a Banker?” The article tells the story of Debrahlee Lorenzana, a woman who alleges that Citibank fired her for her being too sexxy hott.

I don’t have much to say about this actual case in which–based on my read of the situation as the Voice presents it–Citibank appears to be pretty clearly at fault (among some of the most damning evidence that Citibank fired her for no legitimate reason is the fact the only documentation of alleged problems with Ms. Lorenzana’s work is a letter that scolded her for being late on two days that the bank wasn’t even open).  But what I do find fascinating is the way the Voice, Ms. Lorenzana’s lawyer, and Ms. Lorenzana herself seek to tell her side of the story. Continue reading

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