Reporting the news fairly?

September 11, 2017

Jonathan Small, Brandon Dutcher

Last year Americans’ trust in the news media “to report the news fully, accurately, and fairly” fell to its lowest level in Gallup polling history. The problem is especially acute among Republicans: Only 14 percent say they have a great deal or a fair amount of trust in the media.

Gallup delivered additional sobering news this summer: Only 13 percent of Republicans say they have “a great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in newspapers. Only 14 percent of Republicans say news organizations generally get the facts straight.

It’s not just CNN and The New York Times. It’s a problem we see regularly in Oklahoma.

Consider, for example, the media narrative that Oklahoma’s state government is starving. We could cite dozens upon dozens of news stories in which professional journalists perpetuate this narrative. Just last month, for instance, an Associated Press reporter made mention of “the state’s seemingly endless budget problems.”

Now it’s true that Oklahoma’s discretionary state appropriations are down. But remember, discretionary appropriations represent just 39 percent of state spending. Do reporters bother to inform their readers that total state spending is at an all-time high? It’s nearly $4 billion higher than it was a decade ago.

So did the AP’s readers receive the news “fully, accurately, and fairly”? No, they did not.

We see the same problems on the education beat.

“Oklahoma’s education establishment and click-addicted media benefit from public hysteria about a ‘teacher shortage’ and ‘emergency certifications,’” says education researcher Dr. Greg Forster. But do reporters bother to put the “shortage” in context? Are they careful to remind their readers regularly that most of these “emergency” certifications are awarded to individuals “who have educational backgrounds highly relevant to their area of certification, with many meeting the strictest requirements”? Perhaps more importantly, do they report on the general empirical consensus that traditional teacher certification requirements do nothing to improve educational quality?

Moreover, do these professional journalists inform their readers that total education spending in Oklahoma continues to rise? According to the latest data compiled from the Oklahoma Cost Accounting System, both total education spending and per-student education spending were higher in 2016 than in 2006—even when adjusted for inflation. And economist Byron Schlomach has looked back even further: Oklahoma’s inflation-adjusted per-student spending has risen from $3,030 in 1960 to $9,127 in 2016.

If these numbers surprise you, you’ve been cheated. You’ve been misled by many (not all) journalists, most of them liberal, who choose to advance their preferred narrative rather than reporting the news “fully, accurately, and fairly.”

And it’s not just what stories they choose to write (think of The New York Times slogan “All the news that’s fit to print”) and how they construct those stories. It’s also what stories they choose not to write.

Here’s an example. When a public opinion poll in 2015 showed voter opposition to school vouchers, a reporter for the Tulsa World correctly deemed it newsworthy and reported the findings. But last month when OCPA sent this same reporter the results of a new survey showing strong support for Education Savings Accounts and other forms of private-school choice, she replied tersely: “Wayne Greene, opinion pages editor, is your contact at the Tulsa World.” In other words, all the news that fits, we print. Anything else is just your opinion.

Now granted, newspapers are entitled to evaluate newsworthiness and make their own publishing decisions. Still, this hardly seems like an appropriate response from a reporter to a source.

Is it any wonder that only one in seven Republicans trust the media?