Friday, October 19, 2007

Community Reporting Gone Bad

Jason Witz turns in a story, headlined "Focus on Fitness," about schools that are squeezing 150 minutes of physical education into the school week. As it turns out, the story is not about fitness at all. And it falls short of doing any job readers might expect of community journalism.

In the first few paragraphs, Witz recaps initial skepticism about the program by reporting that school districts noted, feared, thought, and finally adjusted. I'm not a prescriptivist who goes apoplectic when an abstract object is said to behave in ways usually associated with real people. After all, I'm an English major, and in my department, rocks talk and daffodils weep.

I was going to let it go, but the more I read, the worse it got.

Witz manages to combine poor sentence-construction skills with the weakest type of reporting to torpedo what should have been a useful contribution to the community. Instead, Witz quotes half a dozen elementary teachers and a couple of principals, all singing the same song: It's a good thing, this 150 minutes a week of state-mandated physical education.

Witz swallows whole the assertion that one teacher's game "where students attempt to balance a peacock feather on their hands" in science class contributes to the physical-education minute. Witz willingly reports that a five-minute exercise tape played over the school's television system is "innovative" physical education. And Witz's editors obviously think a photo of a boy running at the school-bus ramp illustrates physical education.

And worse, all his sources seem to come in over the telephone. Readers get no sense that the reporter left the newsroom and visited any of the schools named. There's simply that string of quotes: teacher at School One followed by teacher at School Two followed by teacher at School Three and so on. No hallway smells, no classroom energy (and the piece is about phys ed!), no feel for the building, grounds or milling hordes of elementary school kids doing their P.E. minutes. If I were editor, I'd ask the reporter, "Did you really go to a school?"

And speaking of editors, someone cleverly inserted a little box in the photo titled "REQUIREMENTS." The editor's failure is the box lists nothing of the sort. Here it is, word for word, not a "requirement" in the list:


What area district's [sic] think about the new physical education requirements:
-- Student energy levels remain consistent throughout the day.
-- Teachers noticing less [sic] behavioral issues and student absence. [sic]
-- Students don't seem as sluggish. [sic]
-- Activities incorporate other learning skills, such as math or science.
[sic, sic]
-- Kids excited about learning as result of activites where subject and exercise combined.
[sic, sic, sic and sic]

(This is what I mean when I say picking on grammar, spelling and basic sentence construction is too easy.)
In the end, all I learned is Witz writes as if he didn't want this assignment and decided to blow it off. As a result, Charlotte Sun readers missed an opportunity to learn some important things about what happens when local schools try to meet state-mandated guidelines.

A Real Reporter Would Help Readers Understand:

0 Who thinks the "activities" that the teachers described constitute physical education?
0 What do real phys ed teachers think of a 2 - 1/2 hours of phys ed each week? What efforts are made to hold a real phys ed class?
o What's educational about running around at the bus ramp? What attempts are being made to fufill the "education" part of physical education?
0 When the order came down (and when, exactly was that?) to make room for phys ed, did the fiat arrive with guidelines or definitions? It was reported in Jason Witz's own newspaper that "walking between classes" was deemed to contribute to this program at one school. Is that so, or just a rumor?
0 Where are the schools that are trying to create a genuine phys ed program, in keeping with the spirit and intent of the mandate? Where does the funding, if any, come from?
0 Why is this worth reporting? Why is there such (frightening) unanimity among teachers? Is there a downside to the program? Or how it's being executed?
0 How does 150 minutes affect the school week? Witz found one teacher who claims her Spanish class was canceled, but I'm skeptical about blaming that on phys ed unless some credible evidence is reported to justify the cause and effect. Just because she said it doesn't make it so.
0 How effectively does the local interpretation of 150 minutes for phys ed contribute to a child's health? Every "this is wonderful" quote sounds suspiciously like the party line, the company song, to this old cynic. Is everyone really so thrilled at having sweaty rounds of jumping jacks carried out in the classroom?

There's more. But, Jason, you get the idea. You let 30,000 readers down: it's not just daffodils that weep.


  1. I used to work for that paper, so I bet anything this is how it went down. Editor comes to Jason with at least three other assignments, all due tomorrow. Two of which were probably bullshit government meetings of some obscure review committee whose big agenda meeting is what color metal they should use on the handicapped ramp, but god forbid the competition has one sentence more than they do. Of course, you have to be there for those meetings - even public access isn't going to air them. So, instead of spending time on what could be a good feature story, he called it in because it was the only thing he could do. That paper's philosophy is "fill the news hole." They don't care with what!

  2. So let's help them get over their bad habits by point out crap is not what readers want. These two publishers and their families are not journalists; journalists have standards that shouldn't be checked at the door. OWW