Trying to correct bad information online is like trying to kill a cockroach. No matter what you do, it just won’t die.
Instead, it gets regurgitated around the world without any fact-checking or original reporting.
Things get even nastier when bad information gets picked up by talk radio and infotainment shows such as The O’Reilly Factor. Think cockroach infestation on steroids.
That’s what happened to North Carolina’s Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools (CMS) when a reporter for an online "news" site, World Net Daily, sent an error-filled story spinning around the globe.
Touting its "investigative reports and conservative commentary," the Oregon-based site attacked CMS Superintendent Peter Gorman for "pitching" a "plan for a school where only Spanish is spoken."
Unfortunately, the sensational story, "’Adios’ English school? Super wants all Spanish," simply wasn’t true.
Reporter Chelsea Schilling knew CMS wasn’t pushing a Spanish-only school. I told her she had it wrong when she called the superintendent for an interview.
In the Wild West of online news, where reporters mine the ‘net for flashy stories and sling zingers rather than bullets, facts don’t seem to matter much.
So, she cobbled together the anti-immigrant story she wanted, spicing it with quotes from me that answered questions and addressed issues she didn’t include.
Suddenly, the anecdote about an affluent family that chose to send their kids to the dual-language immersion program to learn Spanish and appreciate their family’s heritage became a "facility" to "preserve Hispanic culture."
Moving the district’s dual-language immersion program for grades 6-8 from one school to another because of overcrowding became a ploy to "place even more emphasis on Spanish and stretch the curriculum into the eighth grade."
And the district’s $10 million increase in local funding from the Board of County Commissioners to help offset district-wide enrollment growth became either the budget for Spanish services or CMS’ overall budget–the sentence was so poorly written it was hard to tell.
(For the record, CMS is projecting a $1.2 billion budget for 2008-09, and the dual-language immersion program receives the same funding as any other district school.)
As the nation’s 23rd largest school system, CMS has been the subject of many slanted news stories.
Sensationalism sells. Why talk about the 135,000 students and 19,000 employees who work hard and do the right thing every day, if you can talk about the one who didn’t?
What was–and is–unusual about this one is the way it took off on a national basis. Within hours of the story’s posting, we started getting eMails.
Most were outraged. Many were nasty. Some were downright hateful. And they kept coming, and coming, and coming–hundreds, from all over the country.
This message was fairly typical, although it was more polite than most:
"Has Mr. Gorman lost his mind," wrote the respondent, a woman named Carrie (last name withheld). "This is the United States of AMERICA. If people want to retain their own culture and language, let them stay in their own country. This is absolutely absurd to change our culture and way of life for ILLEGAL immigrants who are here on our dime and making these insane demands. Mr. Gorman has this all backwards, and his insane idea should be dismissed promptly [sic]. I live in California. Believe me when I say I experience ILLEGAL immigrant issues daily! I have no problem with those who want to come here legally, pay their taxes and learn OUR language. Otherwise, they should stay home."
We don’t usually bother to respond to hate mail. This time, the story that spawned it was so inept, we decided to craft a standard eMail response.
By addressing the worst errors, we thought most folks would discount the story and see it for the uniformed diatribe it was.
If mistake No. 1 was talking to a reporter from a biased news outlet, mistake No. 2 was assuming that presenting the facts would clear the air.
Apparently, the reporter wasn’t the only one who wasn’t going to let facts get in the way of a preconceived opinion.
Blogs went wild. Soon, we were being blasted by Rush Limbaugh and other syndicated pundits.
Tired of trying to keep up with the media onslaught, we finally posted a "Corrections and Clarifications" document on our web site to set the record straight.
And not one of these so-called news outlets called to see if the story was true or accurately reported before rebroadcasting it or vilifying CMS.
Whatever happened to doing your own reporting? Where are the editors and fact checkers? And why are so many people so angry?
Overcoming willful ignorance and deliberate media bias might be today’s biggest communications challenge. And this challenge is being exacerbated by online and citizen journalists who recycle and respond to "news" without checking its accuracy or doing any original reporting or story sourcing.
Talk radio and politicians have been screaming at us for years, while gleefully ignoring and twisting facts. Now, mainstream journalists are doing it, too, along with bloggers and citizen journalists.
There’s an exhilarating freedom that comes with the absence of gatekeepers, but we haven’t figured out the responsibility piece that comes with it. And people don’t understand the difference between news, entertainment, and informed and ill-informed opinion, as the hate eMail we’ve received on this topic makes clear.
Working for a school district that serves students who hail from more than 150 countries and speak more than 110 native languages, I tend to take diversity for granted. At CMS, globalization is something that’s already here; it’s something we live with every day.
Personally, I think that’s a good thing. It’s one of the reasons I put my own children in public schools.
My son, a public school grad, gets kudos at work because he can talk to anybody about anything from all walks of life.
Well, duh. Unlike many of his private school peers at work, my son went to school with all kinds of kids from all kinds of places and all walks of life.
He moves seamlessly from rich to poor, black to white, Latino to Asian, Jewish to Muslim, suburban to urban.
I’m proud of him, but I know he’s not unusual. Public school graduates nationwide can claim the same skills.
Public school kids give me hope, even when rants masquerade as news, facts no longer matter, and hate hides as patriotism.
A public school graduate myself, I grew up believing the words inscribed on the Statue of Liberty.
My barely literate Irish Catholic ancestors were tired, poor, hungry, and dirty when they arrived in this country. They dressed funny, spoke a different language, prayed to too many saints, and had too many kids.
Teetotalers, they were accused of drinking too much, of being lazy, shiftless "paddy Macs" who couldn’t be trusted not to steal.
Hard-working Iowa farmers, they pooled the family’s resources so my grandfather could become the first to go to college. During the Depression, his engineering salary kept the family going.
The kids in our dual-language immersion program typically surpass their peers on state tests in language arts, reading, and math.
Some come to us speaking only Spanish; some are native born English speakers who recognize that knowing more than one language is a competitive advantage. Many are poor.
They leave fifth grade bilingual and bi-literate: They can speak, listen, understand, read, and write in both English and Spanish.
We offer similar magnet school programs in German, French, Chinese, and Japanese. Parents fill out applications, and students are chosen via a computer lottery.
Had World Net Daily bothered to share facts, rather than hate, its readers might have learned something important.
Instead, World Net Daily spewed more vitriol into the anti-immigrant debate, and another eMailer sent us the following message:
"I find it outrageous that Superintendent Gorman would propose creating two Spanish language K-8 elementary schools. While he may intend to help these children, in the end he is hurting them. How does he expect these children to learn the necessary English speaking skills to compete in today’s society when the school system just keeps reinforcing their Spanish? These children need to start early in learning English, not be complacent in their Spanish. This proposal will not solve anything!"
I’m glad we don’t check immigration papers at the doors of our public schools. Education–public education, free and open to all–is what makes this country great.
An award-winning columnist for eSchool News, Nora Carr is the chief communications officer for North Carolina’s Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools. She is nationally recognized for her work in educational communications.
Tips for stopping the spread of false information
1. Don’t do interviews with a biased or questionable news outlet. Focus on venues that will give you a fair shot or where you can win. I checked out the World Net Daily web site, saw it was of questionable taste and clearly had an ax to grind, and did the interview anyway, as I thought I could quickly and easily correct the reporter’s misunderstanding regarding our dual-language program. Boy, was I wrong.
2. If false information does begin to spread, issue a "Corrections and Clarifications" document–a strategy I learned from Jim Lukazsewski, one of the nation’s top crisis communications counselors. (See his web site, e911.com). Present the false or misleading statements in one column and the corrected version of events in another, side by side. This worked fairly well for us; after we issued our corrections document, two radio stations and the local market leader for television news ran stories with the corrections.