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Getting a Story Wrong

I had one of those awful experiences as a journalist last week where I got a story totally wrong. A mobile analytics company released findings from a study it had done on mobile browser speed, saying that it found Android to be 50% faster than iOS. Turns out the study was flawed, and its conclusions suspect. I updated and corrected my story (well before, I'd like to add, the tongue-lashing I received from Apple).

I screwed up.

It happens in journalism. It happens more than we care to admit: typos, omissions, math errors, misconstrued and misquoted sources, misleading headlines.

Me, I hate being wrong. I'm not sure if that's a character strength or a flaw. And so I don't relish having my mistakes highlighted. But when you're a journalist -- when your writing is supposed to be a public good -- it's essential.

Getting a Story Right

As a result, there are a number of efforts underway by various media watchdogs, such as MediaBugs and Report an Error, that help identify (and hopefully then rectify) these sorts of journalistic mistakes.

That's what a new site, The Media Bullpen, claims to do.

The tagline: "Bringing Accountability to Education Reporting."

That's great. Accountability is important. I see a lot of really shoddy education (technology) reporting. I'm loathe to call people out for it, in part because I'm a journalist, not a judge.

The Media Bullpen Mission

"The Bullpen will empower the public to put in context what they see and hear. The problem is not that education is under-reported; the larger issue is that all too often, it is misreported. Balance, context, sound data, and an institutional knowledge of the many issues are often missing."

Context, balance, accuracy, institutional knowledge - also good.

The Process

"Led by an Executive Editor and a Managing Editor, the entire Bullpen team brings diverse ideological and work experience to the effort. The Bullpen reporters�the umpires�will react and respond in real time to the press as it rolls out its coverage in print, online or broadcast, at the local, state or national levels. They score the coverage using the metaphors of that favorite American pastime, baseball. Articles are given strike outs, pop flys, singles, doubles, triples and home runs, reflecting a particular story's objectivity, proper context, its exploration of data and search for accuracy. Not only will the stories be scored, but over time, readers will see �batting averages' on the news outlets."

Wait, what? I'm not a baseball aficionado, I apologize. While yes I realize that it's "America's pastime" and I do have a working knowledge of the game's basic rules, I'm not really sure that this is the best path to transparency and accountability here. What does it mean when a story's a "pop fly"? What's the difference between a single and a double? How are these stories scored -- not metaphorically scored, mind you, actually scored? What are the metrics?

The Sponsor

The Center for Education Reform, hardly an impartial bystander in education and a vocal proponent of charter schools and vouchers. The Media Bullpen has received funding from a number of other organizations including the Walton Family Foundation and the Gates Foundation -- again, hardly neutral parties when it comes to education. The Media Bullpen insists, however, it is "editorially independent" from its parent organization.

The question of advocacy and journalism is complicated. In various bios, I do label myself an education technology advocate, but I see that more as a signal that I care about covering these stories than anything else. I also state my fondness for open source and for beer -- I will gladly advocate for those, I'm sorry -- and I'll let you be the judge whether either of those preferences impairs my writing.

But it gets a lot more complicated when you turn to the process of assessing a story in the way that The Media Bullpen purports to do. Can an organization with a clear political goal really assess reporting fairly? Perhaps.

But even if The Media Bullpen were objective in its assessments, its scoring needs to be a lot more transparent, I would argue, than hits, homeruns, and percentages. It needs to point out where and why a story is wrong, with clear links to accurate data.

It also needs to look at all stories -- a daunting task, I realize -- not just those hand-picked because they address "education reform" (i.e. charter schools and unions). As it stands, it appears that The Media Bullpen is almost as interested in what's covered than the actual coverage.

I cry "foul."

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Audrey Watters


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