Monday, February 21, 2011

Not Stupid, But Uncharacteristically Sloppy, Journalism Tricks, Part Two

There is an interesting blind spot in journalism, which for lack of a better label we will call "balance bias". It works something like this -- journalists generally like to both be unbiased and appear to be unbiased. That means they relish the role as a neutral observer between warring political factions and often like any good referee, want to be able to have demonstrably called a similar number of penalties on each side.

This often works well. However, there are times where the need to be balanced keeps reporters from calling the facts when one side actually does something worse than the other. Because that involves a value judgement which is less demonstrably backed up, the journalist throws their hands in the air and simply quotes both sides and lets the reader do their own fact checking, or they search to the point of absurdity for false equivalencies. If you criticize one party's actions, you look desperately for one example of another's failings.

If nations were political parties, you might occasionally see sentences like this from journalists biased in the side of balance.

"The Canadians charge that the Taliban, when governing Afghanistan, imposted barbaric restrictions on women's ability to work, to leave abusive marriages, and to move freely outside their home. In particular, Canada has cited the use of cruel punishments such as stoning for minor transgressions such as leaving the home while dressed immodestly, or disobeying one's husband. Yet the Canadians would do well to remember that they themselves, while slamming the Taliban, cut funding to women's groups when the Harper government went after the Court Challenges program in the name of deficit reduction."

You see the trick here, of course -- you don't want to be accused of writing an attack piece on one side, so you have to have something in there that shows you'll hit the other side, too. It is balanced, in that each side takes a hit. Yet you also obscure the truth by creating false equivalencies. You can even reward the side who tells the biggest lie or does the worst thing, because you always have to match it to something benign, obscuring the big transgression.

Maybe I'm going soft, but in my second award for intellectually soft journalism pieces, I'm taking "stupid" out of the title because it goes to a blog that I find is often excellent -- the Spin Reduxit gang at CBC. Even more, I have to credit the author, Jacques Poitras, for having been the one journalist to catch the Education Minister's recent backtracking from his earlier contention that their cuts would not affect the classroom -- which anyone who realizes how much of the schools budget is tied up in fixed areas like salaries, buses and buildings knew was a load of hooey.

Having discovered that the AlwardCons are nowadmitting they cut classroom education in their very first round of cuts, one suspects Poitras was trying to soften this by calling penalties on the Liberals when he wrote this, the article that wins what I'm now calling the Uncharacteristically Lazy Journalist Trick winner.

If you read it, the article points out that one district has publicly said what many have privately told the minister -- the cuts of nearly $9million will involve classroom resources.

Then, it twists itself into a pretzel trying to find something -- anything -- it can use to call a penalty on the other side by looking for past Liberal transgressions. This leads to three assertions that are noteworthy for their lack of rigor, sourcing and logic.

1. The Liberals proposed a reduction in one area of school budgets one time, in 2008, and thus both sides "cut" education.

2. District 1's budget troubles are due to increased numbers of ayant droits (students of dual English-French heritage) entering those District's schools because of the change in early immersion entry points.

3. The existence of ayant droits choosing French schools shows that the Liberals made a "mess" of French Immersion

Well, let's take these one by one....

The False Equivalency Of "Cuts"

The Alward government is the first government in years to propose the overall Education budget. In fact, the four preceding Liberal years saw the Education budget receive the first, second, third and fifth biggest budgeted increase of the previous twenty. (Bernard Lord managed the fourth highest). In fact, the Graham government had the largest four-year increase to Education spending of any provincial government in Canada and the largest four-year expansion of Education spending in the previous forty years in New Brunswick, and more than doubled the rate of increase from the PC government's funding from 1999-2006. Even the one "reduction" cited in the article was a proposed $2.7 million redirection of funds as a way to help pay for a $30million package that added 150 teachers and raised teacher salaries by over $10million.

In case you think this is a whitewash of a government record, let me say this. The Graham government also ran a deficit, a higher one than Tories would have countenanced. That is a legitimate issue for debate, but that honest debate can't happen if journalists, in the name of false balance, are afraid to point out that one side's lower deficit comes at a price of measurably lower education spending.

You can run the check with budget documents on the gnb web site, and you'll find these are the facts...

The Liberal government came to power in 2006 promising to tackle low literacy rates in schools. They increased Education funding more than any government in a half century, and twice as quickly as the PC government before them. When they were done, New Brunswick had 300 more teachers, 400 more support workers, and 60 more special education teachers than they had ever had before The PCs pointed out that, while Liberals had spent more in the classroom and raised literacy rates, they also added to the deficit. When the PC's came to power, they pledged to lower the deficit, and as part of that effort they did something the Liberals had never done - they proposed an actual cut to overall Education spending for the first time since the McKenna budgets of the mid-1990s.

One side proposes more education spending but higher deficits, the other proposes lower deficits with less education spending. For the Spin Reduxit gang to try to obscure that choice by falsely equating an overall cut with a line item reallocation, in an increased budget, is obscuring the real debate, and engaging in a little spin of their own.

2. Budget Pressures Are The Result Of The Immersion Decision

This one was uncharacteristic of the usually-vigilant CBC gang -- it makes a factual assertion without even pretending to cite an actual number or source for the assertion. Yet the numbers were easily available had they wanted to fact-check this hypothesis.

Had they looked, the Reduxiters would have found that District One had been at or near the top of New Brunswick's 14 school districts every year in the last decade, and was the only francophone school district to grow in the past decade. To test the hypothesis that the FI decision is the cause, one would want to see if the increase had appeared only after the decision -- which it didn't.

District 1 is correct that it has unique budget pressures, both because it is growing and because it has a minority-language mandate in a region where the vast majority of people are anglophone. It's growth is largely due to the fact that it is the only district to contain all 3 metro areas in the province at a time when urban centers are growing and rural areas are not. (Census data alone would tell you that if you have Dieppe, Fredericton and suburban Saint John, you will grow).

I can't fault the Reduxiters for not knowing if the FI decision added significant numbers -- the statistic doesn't exist because to have it would require knowing what decision each family would have made under the old system, and that is unknown, maybe unknowable. But I can fault them for making up a fact statement without any facts, or for not noting that the growth trend has been constant both before and after the FI changes.

Which leads us to...


Let's grant anecdotally that some families who had the right to be in either system may have once chosen a middle ground of Grade One immersion now chose to exercise their right to be in a francophone school. First, why is that a mess? And second, on what basis do Poitras et al determine that francophones being in the francophone system is a worse consequence than the problems addressed by the FI changes of 2007? We don't know, because they don't tell us -- it seems to be enough to have found some balancing slam to hit the Liberals with that they have no need to explain.

Not to re-open the debate, but the stated purpose of the EFI changes was to address one central problem, which was the unintended result that in many schools, nearly all struggling students and students with special needs were in one class together, and years of educational research showed that streaming kids from poor areas or with poor academic performance together led to low literacy scores and inequality. So far, what we know is that the first group of Grade 3 students not streamed in Grade One has recorded the highest ever literacy score. (what their French performance will be is not yet known).

Now, good people can argue reasonably about whether the problem the Liberals treated (low literacy scores resulting from unequal classrooms) was really worse than new challenges created (a later start for those who would have chosen EFI in the French language beingbthe obvious tradeoff). But Poitras et al don't even try to do this. Do they explain why 50 or 100 students of mixed heritage being in French schools is a mess, or why this is a bigger mess than the streaming of poor and struggling kids into a failing system? Um, no. It is just thrown out there, as if the horror of kids with French heritage being in French schools is self-evident, as opposed to a Charter right. (If you said the minister of the day made a mess of the process, I would plead guilty -- but Poitras isn't suggesting the process drove up District One enrollment)

Bottom line : if you are going to call something a mess, show your work. But simply saying the end of streaming is a mess because it had the intended tradeoff of requiring French schools to provide more francophones with an education is silly -- it would be like saying Louis Robichaud made a mess of the Official Languages Act because translation costs went up. He knew that, and chose that, in the decision. The "mess" would only arrive if a government kept the decision but cut off the money -- like the Alward Tories have done in this case.

I don't have a defense for my party's call for the District to refuse the Minister. If the Reduxiters felt the need to have some offseting Liberal penalty here, it was factually true that we never defended a District's right of rebellion when we were in charge.

I've tried to be balanced here, making concessions to fact where the facts aren't on the Liberal side and avoiding areas where good people can differ, like the long-debated immersion decision.

My point is that for reasons I think are well-intentioned, CBC tried to soften a negative story on Tory cuts by creating a few other claims. In doing this, they created false equivalencies between real cuts and reallocated increases, created a group of students changing systems out of thin air without factual attribution, and made some new value judgements without explanation or fact. They achieved the false balance of having called an equal number of penalties on two teams, but at the price of having to invent a few calls out of whole cloth.

We have a serious debate going on -- whether a deficit is worse than cuts to education, or whether cuts to education are worse than a high deficit. The government of the day would like to spin away that choice, by pretending that they can cut spending without having to admit that they cut spending. I understand why they want to spin that, but that doesn't mean that the usually-sharp crew at Spin Resuxit needs to be complicit in that.

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