One of the basic tensions in journalism comes between what’s news and what’s a good story. The best journalism combines the two, using the power of narrative to communicate vital, relevant information about the state of the world. Sometimes, however, journalists find good stories that aren’t really news. Unfortunately, they frequently try to make news out of them anyway, by pretending that interesting but isolated incidents represent broader trends.
This happens a lot in education journalism, and there’s an easy way to spot these bogus trend stories. Three or four grafs in, after the lead anecdote, you will read three words that should say, loud and clear, “there is less here than meets the eye.”
Those words are “small but growing.”
As in this article($) in today’s Wall Street Journal, which tells the story of a husband and wife who found the perfect private school for their high schools daughters, a tony prep school near Boston. Unfortunately, they lived in Los Angeles. So, naturally, the husband quit his job, they sold their house, and they moved to small apartment in Boston. It took him three months to find a new job, so they had to run through most of their savings and the money they made on the home sale in order to live and pay the $56,000 school tuition. Their furniture is still in L.A., because they can’t afford to move it, and the wife, who used to stay home, is now looking for work. But it was all worth it, because their daughters are learning Greek.
Sensibly, this should be a feature story highlighting the fact that this decision looks, in retrospect, to be pretty insane, maybe with some added comment about how some people take devotion to their children’s education to almost fetishistic extremes. But it’s not. Instead, it’s framed as a trend story. The headline is “Anxiety High: Moving For Schools,” which is fair enough. But the subhead is “A growing number of parents are choosing where to buy a home based on its proximity to the private school where they want to send their children.” And upon coming to the fifth graf, we find this:
Across the country, a small but growing number of parents like the O’Gormans are dramatically altering their families’ lives to pursue the perfect private school for their children. While past generations of parents might have shifted addresses within a town to be near a particular school, or shipped junior off to boarding school, these parents are choosing school first, location second. “I hear about it all the time,” says Patrick Bassett, president of the National Association of Independent Schools, or NAIS, in Washington, D.C.
In other words, what should be a standard man-bites-dog human interest story is instead alleged to be evidence of some kind of trend. A small trend, of course, backed up in this case by exactly two more anecdotes and a few quotes from private school folks and a psychologist. But a growing trend. How do we know it’s growing? Because some person the reporter called on the phone said so! The guy from the private school association, he hears about it all the time. How much more data do you need?
The problem is that people believe what they read in the newspaper. If the Wall Street Journal says it’s a trend, it’s a trend, and soon enough this meme will be become part of the larger narrative about education, influencing what people believe and thus what decisions they make. And it will be wrong, but nobody will know that.
All for the sake of a good story.