Saturday, June 9, 2007

Surprise! Inane journalism means inane news.

As an English major, I could have chosen to become a journalist instead of a teacher. Recently, I was reminded why I didn't.

In spite of all that is going on the world today, newspapers seem to be having trouble finding stories. How this is possible, I do not know. I do know this: reporters are at their stupidest when they are desperate for a story. If they can't find a scandal, they'll create one, out of thin air if they can. It's a fairly juvenile attention-getting technique, but, hey, it sells newspapers.

I'm all for reporting real problems with schools and educators. Like, say, when a high school principal gets arrested for selling illegal drugs, that is worth knowing, and that is the kind of thing we expect to see printed.

By contrast, an incident in which a small town high school principal takes necessary and appropriate measures to shut down a pre-meditated, pre-organized, and totally out of control food fight is hardly noteworthy. But, when the children in question whined anonymously to the editor of the local paper about the punishments put in place, their opinions actually got printed.

What punishment were they whining about? No trip to Disneyland for "Grad Nite" for the entire senior class.

The complaint? (don't forget to imagine this in a whiny adolescent voice...) "But other grades did it..." blah, blah, blah.

Remember, the incident was orgainized and started by seniors. Remember also that the complaint to the newspaper was made anonymously, because the students who wrote it wanted to avoid "ramifications". Translation: They're guilty---and annoyed that their anonymity didn't allow them to get away with it.

Now, I've been to Grad Nite. I had a blast. But was hardly the peak of my life. Let's face it, I could have lived a perfectly happy life if I hadn't had that "once in a lifetime experience", which happens to be privilege, and not a right. Frankly, kids who will orchestrate mischief on campus, after repeated warnings, shouldn't be trusted to run around an amusement park with minimal supervision. This is especially clear when one considers that this particular on-campus mischief was so out of control that the school has to be placed in lockdown, and it created (I am not making this up) EIGHT HOURS of extra cleanup work for the custodial staff. Be assured, Disneyland would have no problem banning the entire school from Grad Nite for the next 20 years if these kids pulled something like that over there.

Now of course, the beauty of blanket punishment such as this is that the innocent will soon rat out the guilty because they want to go party at the end of senior year. So it was here, and Grad Nite privileges were restored to those who were not involved, once the culprits had been sorted out. Justice was served. And life went on.

And a week went by.

And then one of San Diego County's largest newspapers picks up on the story---and prints it again, using it as an opportunity to paint an experienced and highly competent school administrator as---well---anything but what he is. Seriously, what do the reporters expect? That a principal will be swayed by the whining of a couple of cowardly 17-year-olds who won't put their names to their complaints? That the lunch lady can just say, "Pardon me, would you mind not throwing food in here?" and expect the food fight to stop? Please.

Given the extent of the property damage here, I'd venture to say he handled the situation very wisely. Adolescents do not have a lot of forethought in large groups, especially once they get caught up in a frenzy. They will not consider that if a person with a short temper gets ketchup in his eye, he might take it personally, and a food fight could soon become an on-campus brawl leading to injuries, property damage, public outrage, and lawsuits. Any experienced school administrator, especially one who used to work at one of the largest schools in San Diego County, will know this, and take preventative measures to avoid such escalation.

So here we have a perfectly reasonable administrator, just doing his job at an obscure school in an obscure town. No big deal.

And yet, a major newspaper, in one of Southern California's major metropolitan areas, instead of reporting on something interesting or important, prefers to waste paper and ink on a food fight and a lot of immature teenage whining. The Union Tribune reporter knew this story wasn't newsworthy, but he printed it anyway, and his editors let him do it. And they wonder why we're not rushing out to buy newspaper subscriptions.

This is a real problem with the media. We expect journalists to be able to report things fairly and accurately, and to be able to discern the difference between actual news and immature attempts at attention getting from disgruntled high school students.

If they can't do that, how can we trust them to report on real problems in education, much less with elections and wars?

Just wondering...

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