I love back-to-school time: the joy, the energy, the sense of limitless possibilities. It’s almost enough to make you forget about the tsunami of dreadful journalism that accompanies it.
There are basically three reasons for bad back-to-school journalism. First, higher education is complicated; it doesn’t lend itself to the simplistic narratives required for 800-word articles. Second, there’s a serious lack of decent data about higher education in Canada, what with the Millennium Scholarship Foundation gone, HRSDC no longer funding any decent Statscan surveys, and provinces and universities holding on tightly to their own data on the grounds that someone might use it to compare them against other provinces/institutions (and that would never do!). In this data vacuum, interested parties with their own agendas find it easy to peddle all sorts of demented, half-true factoids to journalists; hence, the frequent appearance of stories based on “data” which simply aren’t true.
The third problem is the lack of outcome measures. Everyone wants “good” education, but no one knows what that is. So journalists tend to fall back on input measures: small classes, students per professors, etc., which inevitably lead to a weird mythologizing of university life in the 1970s. Nothing wrong with the 1970s of course, but it somehow never quite clicks with op-ed writers that a major reason life was so great for students back then was that access was restricted to a fairly small elite, and that the comparative “failures” of today’s universities are largely the result of expanded access. This was a central failing of last year’s worst back-to-school-article, by Carol Goar.
In this year’s worst-back-to-school article derby, we already have an early contender from Vancouver Sun columnist, Douglas Todd – which the excellent Melonie Fullick has already skewered, here. Todd’s piece gives a lot of column inches to the views of a single professor who doesn’t like foreign graduate students much, and claims that these foreign students cost tax payers more than they bring-in. On closer inspection, one realizes that the “evidence” comes from a single, 11 year-old article about graduate enrolment in America. Why either a tenured professor or a serious journalist would think that old data from one national policy context would tell you anything at all about the economics of education in another country and context is beyond me, but there you have it.
I’ll be announcing my worst-story winner on September 16th – if you have any suggestions, do let me know! As a guide, I thought I’d provide you all with a “Bad Education Journalism” Bingo Card. Each square represents a cliché, inaccurate piece of data, or trope borrowed from the US with no corresponding Canadian data. Play with your friends! See which articles cover the most squares!
Bad Back-to-School Journalism Bingo