From a PBS Fan: Don’t Check Your Journalistic Integrity at the Door

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Let me state this for the record: I love PBS.  But Gwen Ifill’s interview with Jesse Hagopian, an anti-testing activist in Seattle who, according to his bio, “helped ignite a national movement against the abuses of standardized testing,” jolted me out of my PBS-bliss.

When a national network’s flagship program summarizes a segment like this – “On one side of the debate over standardized testing sits a well-funded school reform movement that includes billionaires Bill and Melinda Gates, while on the other side sit many teachers, parents and, in some cases, students” – you know that we’ve crossed the line from liberal leanings to an utter lack of journalistic integrity.

Education Post already has some commentary on this (see here and here), including corrections to some of the errors that infiltrate Ifill’s segment, like her assertion that standard-aligned tests “are part of the Common Core,” which, of course, they are not. (The CCSS are a state-run effort to ensure that students, regardless of state of residence, have access to high standards. Forty-six states have adopted them and they’ve been implemented successfully for five years and counting.. Assessments aligned with CCSS are available from private vendors or states may choose to create their own.)

Lots of laypeople confuse the Common Core with assessments like Smarter Balanced and PARCC. That’s unfortunate. But we expect more from an esteemed journalist.

Here’s another segment of the broadcast:

GWEN IFILL: He wants his Garfield High School students to know their history, that Jimi Hendrix and Quincy Jones ones walked these halls before the students were even born. 

HAGOPIAN: Take a second to read some of the history.

GWEN IFILL: And he wants them to know their choices, among them, the right to opt out of the standardized tests Washington State schools use to gauge student performance.The fight against what he calls excessive testing pits Hagopian against not only the U.S. Department of Education… 

JESSE HAGOPIAN: So, are you going to speak some Spanish today? 

GWEN IFILL: … but also against deep-pocketed school reformers who push for the tests to measure progress.

Whoa! “Deep-pocketed school reformers”? “Excessive testing”?  Conspiracies to efface the legacies of Jimi Hendrix and Quincy Jones?

Look, Hagopian has every right to promote his view of accountability (although he must know that, in fact, the Washington State’s participation in the Smarter Balanced tests actually reduces student testing time).

But Ifill? Not so much, especially if she adheres to the Code of Ethics outlined at the Society for Professional Journalists. These principles include:

  • Take responsibility for the accuracy of their work. Verify information before releasing it. Use original sources whenever possible. 
  • Provide context. Take special care not to misrepresent or oversimplify in promoting, previewing or summarizing a story
  • Gather, update and correct information throughout the life of a news story.  Avoid stereotyping. Journalists should examine the ways their values and experiences may shape their reporting. 
  • Label advocacy and commentary.
  • Never deliberately distort facts or context.

In this interview with Hagopian, Ifill stereotyped supporters of accountability, misrepresented both the Common Core and assorted aligned assessments, and failed to verify information and correct factual errors.

I expect more from PBS.

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