Hiding in plain sight
A big story cooks for a couple of years before going mainstream
In recent days, residents have been seeing a lot of local news coverage about whether Washoe County’s high school graduation rate was artificially propped up, particularly during the brief school district superintendency of Heath Morrison.
Why now? The Las Vegas Review-Journal reported on it last year. Two years ago, Sparks Tribune columnist Andrew Barbano, acting on figures from the NAACP’s Lonnie Feemster, reported it. Indeed, in North Carolina—Morrison’s subsequent port of call—the Charlotte Observer reported on Washoe’s uncertain statistics in May 2012. Why did it take so long to reach Renoites?
In 2012, the Washoe County School District was reporting that the graduation rate jumped from 56 percent in 2009 to 70 percent. The figures were mostly reported without scrutiny by television stations—if they were mentioned at all—and a “fact checker” column was the closest the Gazette-Journal came to examining them. The newspaper didn’t give it the emphasis it did last week—an entire section front page that jumped inside.
At the same time that year, Barbano reported that the 70 percent figure represented a decline, not a rise: “But if you believe data that WCSD filed with the Nevada Dept. of Education, Hispanic students showed a 5.1 percent decline from 2009 to 2011, as did blacks (-1.7), American Indians/Alaska Natives (-5.1) and whites (-3.1). The overall graduation rate dipped by 5.4 points to 71.9 percent.” This article has been posted on Barbano’s website for the past two years, and deals with figures that don’t get counted, as well.
Barbano’s had a varied career. A key operative in a political campaign that defeated the state’s previously invincible U.S. House member, Walter Baring, he himself became the Democratic nominee for the U.S. House in 1984 and ran a quixotic “None of the Above for Governor” campaign in 1982. He has written one of the state’s longest-running columns for the Sparks Tribune since 1988, winning several awards and once nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. Barbano assists labor unions and the local NAACP in creating an online presence and organizes an annual banquet honoring Cesar Chavez.
One of the pitfalls of this diversity is that for journalists, Barbano doesn’t fit any familiar category. Had his claims come from someone with a title, they would likely have gotten greater attention. In addition, if Barbano had not been a news competitor through the Sparks Tribune, this issue might very well have gotten more attention sooner.
A lot of local community figures, often described as gadflies, are similarly discounted by a lot of reporters. Barbano doesn’t fit into that category, but he also isn’t plugged into a lot of the usual places like service clubs and chambers of commerce. In addition, some reporters follow Tallyrand’s maxim “Surtout, pas trop de zele”—above all, not too much zeal. They are made uncomfortable by advocates. And there is some legitimacy to that feeling.
Veteran journalist Frank Mullen, now also a University of Nevada, Reno journalism instructor, said an entity like the Associated Press Reno bureau is not likely to pick up something from Barbano’s column or website and send it out more or less unchanged—as they would with a television or Gazette-Journal story—because he is a partisan.
“Andy, being an advocate of unions and other causes, he’s got an agenda,” Mullen said. “He may be lumped in with people perceived as speaking only for things that fit their agenda.”
Television veteran Ed Pearce said of Barbano, “Andy prints his stuff off to the side where it doesn’t get seen. A lot of the time, he’s plowing ground that nobody else notices. I talk to him a couple of times a year on various stuff. He’s sometimes digging where other people don’t.”
It’s true that Barbano’s forum—the twice-a-week Sparks Tribune—is not read by some valley newspeople, which is foolish. Sparks is too big a part of the market not to be reading its newspaper. The problem, on a smaller scale, is akin to the way the Knight Ridder newspapers raised substantial questions about the Bush administration claims of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, and major entities like the television networks, New York Times, and Washington Post never knew it because they didn’t read any of the chain’s 20-plus newspapers.
Reno television station news departments have another problem. At one time they had serious beats covered by assigned reporters. But over the years, as Reno stations added more newscasts without generally increasing staffs, the existing reporters were pushed harder to cover more and produce more versions of the each day’s stories for multiple newscasts. Beats fell by the wayside, though they may still be technically in place.
“What we need is a lot of high-quality, interchangeable parts,” said then-KOLO news director Brad Brokaw in 2002.
Television reporters thus are expected to cover a city council meeting one day, school dropouts the next, a bank robbery the day after that, then the Medicaid load. The result is that they are rarely able to develop a depth of knowledge on local government, education, law enforcement, or health care, and are less likely to know the nuances of something like the high school graduation rate.Who gets heard?
When Pearce was KOLO news director, he had a framed poster on the wall listing people who regularly get interviewed by reporters and those who regularly get ignored by reporters. The poster has disappeared over several remodelings, but one recollection is that it read something like this: “Who Gets Attention/ White men, Rich people, Athletes, Performers, Politicians. Who Gets Ignored/ Children (until they are victims), People of color, Homeless people, Poor people.”
Who reporters should listen to is an ongoing topic in journalism. The Columbia Journalism Review, a publication that scrutinizes journalism practices and ethics, has published articles in recent years with sentences like these:
“So it used to be that you would get stories by chatting to people in bars, and it still might be that you’ll do it that way some times.” (2010).
“Wouldn’t it be nice, though, if we also got to hear from someone in that ’almost half’ that doesn’t pay income tax at all (often because they can’t afford to)? Maybe they could tell us how they’re doing, who they resent, and what seems fair to them” (2011).
“And in the current budget debate, the people getting heard are often those pushing the argument that spending is out of control and must be cut” (2011).
Mullen said while the conventional wisdom is that major media have lost their gatekeeper role, “I don’t believe that at all.” Barbano and other online journalists have become so numerous, Mullen said, the major media are the only way they get sorted out.
“He’s competing with millions of other voices out there,” he said of Barbano. “I think things kind of get lost in this deluge of information. … Even though everyone’s got their own megaphone now, if you want to get that story out, you’ve got to get it out through the major media.”
Barbano said he will keep writing about the situation and that the NAACP’s Feemster is still tracking the numbers. “The fuzzing up of racial and ethnic enrollments contributes to an already-vague system ripe for more manipulation,” Barbano said.