Tuesday, July 04, 2006

And the Echo and Stentor Awards Go To . . . #3

From Ash:

I haven't given out any of my irregularly bestowed Echo and Stentor Awards in a while, but I found a couple pieces that are particularly worthy. If you're newer to the blog, Echo Awards are named in honor of the Greek nymph, Echo, for media pieces that notably repeat other articles' misinformation. Stentor awards, named for the Greek warrior who died while outyelling his opponents, are my commendation for articles challenging the media with, gasp, actual facts.

By the way, I know that this may seem like an awfully long post just to comment on a couple news articles, but I think these offer fascinating insight into the media echo chamber. The media does this sort of thing to political candidates, but I hardly ever see it done to news outlets themselves. And analysis like this really changes the way I, myself, read the news – so I really hope you'll stick with me.

Bettijane Levine's piece, "Empty Nest? Now Keep it that Way," for the Los Angeles Times wins this week's Echo Award.

In it, Levine argues that it seems that the "boomerang trend" – when adults move home to live with their parents - may be slowing, and she largely credits this to parents' increasingly willingness to be tough and not let the kids back in the door. Now, Levine receives the Echo for three reasons.

First, of course, is that there is no boomerang trend. (Read our posts on the topic if you want more of an explanation.)

Second, I was listening to a radio commercial for the DVD release of the movie, Failure to Launch, thinking to myself, "Oh, God, just a DVD release isn't going to trigger more articles about boomerangs, is it?" Literally, the next morning, this article ran. Somehow, I doubt it was a coincidence.

Third, and best of all, Levine's a true echo: she repeats her own misinformation – to the point that she reuses the same interviewee – and, rather than admit being wrong in the first place, she finds new reasons to keep the story going.

Almost a year ago, Levine wrote a piece stating there was a "boomerang trend." If I'd been giving Echos then, she would have gotten one at that point, since it was already clear that this was a story driven by media reports more than facts. She even opens the story with an acknowledgement that there's been a media onslaught on this, then just says that those articles have been proven right. (Echo #1) In that article, Levine spent 609 words of a 1769-word article on the story of Hilary McQuaide, a recent college-grad who'd just moved home – all about how McQuaide was comparatively happy with her decision, settled in for a long haul, etc.

Now, in the new piece, Levine offers reasons for why the "trend" might not becoming as big as expected – the parents are being tougher than they were. She doesn't admit any of that reporting (hers or anyone else's) could have been flawed in the first place. Even worse, there's an implicit argument that the parents' new toughness occurred because of reporting on this "trend."

Even more amazing, Levine recycles McQuaide as a source, failing to mention the earlier profile, and now including her to illustrate that boomerangs move home but may leave soon after – perhaps just weeks after being profiled the first time. In other words, "boomeranging" is such a no-trend trend, that Levine just reinterviewed McQuaide. Despite the fact that, laid next to each other, McQuaide's stories stands in diametric opposition of Levine's theses . . . both times. And without a recognition that if the story had been first, accurately pitched as "college student stays at home in the weeks between leaving college dorm, moving across country, and getting job" that wouldn't have been worth of 10 paragraphs in the LAT.

If that isn't an echo, I don't know what is.

On the other hand, I'm proud to announce that Education Sector's Sara Mead and the Washington Post's Jay Mathews each win a Stentor Award. Sara Mead's an author of a study challenging the media's recent outcry about the poor performance of boys in school, to the point out it being a "boy crisis." Not only does Mead take on the theory with some detailed analysis, she also specifically identifies numerous instances when the media got it wrong. I've just skimmed the study so far, but I've read enough that I really want to read further.

Mathews then reported on Mead's work in his article, "Study Casts Doubt on 'Boy Crisis.'" In it, Mathews included not just Mead's citations to wrong articles, but he got one of the "crisis" experts, Michael Gurian, to admit that the word "crisis" shouldn't be used to describe boys' academic achievement. Gurian says he'd be happy if that term was removed from the dialogue about the issue. I wish Mathews had directly noted, instead of implied, that Gurian himself is one of the main culprits to promulgate (and profit from) that term. Gurian uses "crisis" on his own websites (his site and an organization he founded, boysproject.net) to sell his books and push his speaking engagements. But Mathews got Gurian to give a quote I'm sure he didn't want to say, and for that, bravo. I hope Mathews' piece follows Gurian on his next speaking tour.


Blogger Alexander Russo said...

hi, ashley --

about that "there is no boys crisis" thing, you might want to hold off a little longer --

-- the mead report, all 21 pages of it, is pretty narrowly based on NAEP data and ignores some good work that others have done on the boy/girl issues.

-- the mathews article was followed almost immediately by a long and somewhat apologetic "explanation" from mathews himself about how he wishes the story had been written.

i've blogged about this and the past few months of boys crisis hype on my site, thisweekineducation.com.

one other thing that's interesting to note, for me at least, is that two of the main opponents of the boys crisis idea -- mead and slate's ann hulbert -- are women.

do you think the idea of a boys crisis (or whatever you want to call it) is a particularly hard/galling issue for women, or is it just coincidence?

-- alexander

11:19 AM  
Blogger Ashley Merryman said...

Tease me with saying there's a follow-up, with no link? If anyone's interested: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2006/06/27/AR2006062700638.html

I've read the Mathews column twice, and I don't think he is necessarily apologizing or recanting on any of his story, as you suggest, just that he felt there was a lot more that should have been in there. But actually, what he chose to put in his post doesn't necessarily clarify anything for me, and as you correctly wrote in your blog, it only highlighted that I'd like to hear more independent authorities commenting on the issue.

(And mostly, his quote of Stevens' comments about the media's misuse of their "Crisis" terminology made me all the more convinced that Mathews should have called them on their own use of the term, which he didn't do in the post or first piece.)

I do take your point, and I really appreciate your comments, but for now at least, I'm not taking back the Stentor, because the report and the article -- as flawed as they may be -- at least they in some way say that the jury is still out on this issue. And that I think is worth saying.

As for the larger issue, is this something I'd really like to dive into the research on? Absolutely.

I find myself perplexed by the "boy crisis." Po and I keep talking about it, and I keep trying to collect information on it, but I just find that too much writing is so agenda-driven to be relied upon. And it's hard for me to see how the boy-issue is more significant than, say the differences between educational achievement of different ethnicities, which really trouble me, and are indisputable.

I doubt it because it's hard for me to believe that in the 20 yrs since I was in high school, the academic environment has changed so drastically that boys are no longer capable of succeeding. Do boys learn differently? And should we change the way we teach boys and girls? Perhaps. But I've heard scientists (of both genders) angrily reject that proposition as well.

So I'm very dubious about the issue: I think the real problem is lumping everything from ADHD misdiagnosis into college attainment under a single media-friendly soundbite. It's too hard to believe that there's a society-wide program of boy-discrimination, and, even if there were, such blanket statements are terribly difficult to effectively analyze or remedy.

And I don't think that my dubiousness on the boy crisis is because I'm a chick. It's because I'm not persuaded.

9:06 PM  

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