“Journalists should be honest, fair and courageous in gathering, reporting and interpreting information. Journalists should … distinguish between advocacy and news reporting. Analysis and commentary should be labeled and not misrepresent fact or context.”
Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics
In today’s day and age, it is often difficult to distinguish between real journalism and “citizen” journalism, between real reporters and bloggers, between real journalists and those who aggregate the news. We expect our “respected” news outlets to hold their reporters and editors to the highest standards, and in return we come to trust those news items that appear on their front pages or at the top of their broadcasts as being unbiased and fair.
Since I was a child, after watching “All the President’s Men” for the first time, I put The Washington Post on that list of respected news outlets. While I may not agree with all editorial or opinion pieces at the back of the A section, I always knew I could trust the news that was offered on A1. Until now.
For those who missed it, over the New Year’s holiday the Post ran a page one piece titled “U.S. education officials lobbied against Starr for New York City schools post.” The topic is one that would interest virtually anyone involved in education policy. Did the U.S. Department of Education inject itself in the new mayor of NYC’s choice for schools chancellor? With Mayor de Blasio now looking to undo much of the reforms enacted under Mayor Bloomberg over the past 12 years, it is a fair and interesting question.
Only seems logical that such a piece would be written by someone like Michael Alison Chandler, a terrific reporter who has done a great job covering national K-12 education news for WaPo. Or Emma Brown, who has brought a great eye to covering DC Public Schools. Or a number of other journalists who cover national news, NYC news, or politics for the esteemed broadsheet.
Instead, the byline belonged to Valerie Strauss, a veteran scribe for the Post. Most know Strauss as the “author” of The Answer Sheet, a WaPo blog focused on education. I intentionally put “author” in quotes because so much of The Answer Sheet’s content is handing over the space to a range of individuals and advocates, reproducing their words. Nothing wrong with that, it is all credited and sourced. And The Answer Sheet fills an important role in our education news landscape.
The problem is objectivity. For much of the past five years, The Answer Sheet has been focused on attacking U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan, the U.S. Education Department, and any and all associated with school improvement and education reform. It is a bastion for the defenders of the status quo, and most who reach out to Strauss with an alternate perspective are left to spin their wheels. The Answer Sheet borders on serving as an advocacy platform, and most in the field recognize that. We accept that. We know that Strauss has a particular opinion, their is a specific mission behind The Answer Sheet. Her work has an agenda, intentional or unintentional. Just as many would not accept Diane Ravitch’s blog posts as gospel, so too do we read Strauss with a large grain of salt.
That doesn’t mean I don’t read it. In fact, Eduflack often tweets out pieces from The Answer Sheet, believing they add to the public discussion and offer up a clear point of view (one I sometimes agree with, but often don’t.)
So my issue is the publication of a piece attacking the U.S. Department of Education and questioning to motives of the EdSec ran, without any actual source quoted in the piece. After calling Duncan’s “lobbying” an “unusual move by the nation’s top education official,” Strauss reveals her smoking gun in all of this. “Duncan spoke negatively about Starr to de Blasio in a discussion about a number of candidates, people familiar with the discussions said.”
That’s right. Not a soul on the record. Just “people familiar with the discussions.” We don’t know if those are people in the room, people who heard from de Blasio after the fact, people listening against the door, or those who heard through their tin foil hats.
Nor do we know what negative items were spoken. Did Duncan go after Starr? Did he run through a pros/cons list of the top five candidates? Was he playing devil’s advocate? Did such negative comments actually happen? We just don’t know.
The SPJ Code of Ethics offers us two important items here. The first is “Identify sources whenever feasible.” The second is “Always question sources’ motives before promising anonymity.” From the piece, it looks like the only “source” Strauss looked to put on the record here was Duncan. As for Duncan, Strauss says he “did not return phone calls seeking comment.” When it came to de Blasio (the other guy in the room for all this) he got a much less pointed “could not be reached for comment.”
Without question, Strauss has every right to write such a piece and the Post has every right to publish it. But we should hold our media to a higher standard. With The Answer Sheet’s track record, such a piece belongs on a blog or on the opinion pages, not on page 1. And if WaPo editors deem the piece worthy of the front page, it should be held to a higher standard. Someone on the record. One of those “people familiar with the discussions” must be willing to have their name attached, and get the credit for taking yet another shot at the EdSec, right? Or else lede with the far less juicy stuff about an ED staffer talking to friends about his concerns.
Or perhaps Eduflack is just expecting too much from the media and “respected” media outlets. Instead of us all wanting to be Woodward or Bernstein or take a stand like the NYT did on the Pentagon Papers, maybe we all just want to be Matt Drudge.