LynNell Hancock On The HotSeat: No Cheating Allowed

I first came to know about journalist LynNell Hancock last year when she wrote a controversial essay in the Columbia Journalism Review about trends in education journalism (How are the kids?) that Eduwonk and I took issue with (here and here).

Since then, I learned that she has written extensively about schools and children, including a book (and another in the works). She now teaches at the Columbia J-School (bio here). Yes, THAT J-School.

On the HotSeat, Hancock describes the current hullabaloo surrounding the Columbia cheating scandal, says it's not just KIPP schools that can overcome student poverty, calls for a return of education stories that include children's home lives not just what's going on in the classroom, laments editors' general lack of interest in education stories (and reporters writing too much about tests and what superintendents say). She says being criticized by bloggers is like being "ambushed by paint guns" but thinks the Internet could still help journalism improve.


What’s this about Columbia J-school students cheating on their ethics exam?

LH: What J-School student would want to be known for cheating on the ethics exam? Stupidity on brightly lit display. The trouble is, no one at our school seems to have a clue who cheated, or if the cheating actually happened. There are no names, no hard evidence. Just a rumor that a student gave a final exam essay question to another. Meanwhile, the whole student body has been asked to write another exam. It’s a very convoluted affair.

What's the worst lapse of journalist ethics you can remember?

LH: This latest ethical brushfire reminded me when I was a student at the J-School at Columbia in 1980. Janet Cooke was awarded the Pulitzer Prize that year for her Washington Post series on “Jimmy’s World.” Within a few weeks she was exposed as a fraud. Jimmy was a total fabrication, along with much of his world. When I look back on it now as a child and family policy reporter, it seems mind boggling that no one at the time questioned that a six year old (Jimmy) could be a heroin addict. When one journalist mangles ethical standards, all of us pay.

What did you think of Paul Tough’s recent NYT Magazine piece on the differences in what middle- and lower-income kids need and the conflicts within education about whether schools or broader social issues should be addressed first?

LH: I thought the story provided a very smart summary of some key education research, deftly analyzed and smoothly written. Overall, it presented a provocative case for focusing on schools over their surrounding environment for clues to success. Tough’s analysis left out one major factor though -- the quality of the teaching staff. And I have some concern about the conclusion that minority kids are more successful in school when they learn middle class mores and behavior standards. I am familiar with hundreds of quality schools that look nothing like the KIPP models.

Generally speaking, what does journalism tend to get wrong about education, and what does education not quite understand about journalism?

LH: Journalists don’t get that public education is not simply another arm of government to be covered like City Hall. Educators do not understand that reporters need to be cultivated and educated, not shut out of classrooms where they could learn the most.

What is it about education stories that editors dislike so much?

LH: Editors need to wake up and recognize that readers are far more interested in stories that get at the heart of public education -- those that deal with students and teachers. This is one area where the news media has it upside down. Readers care far more about vital education coverage than the editors do.

As you know, I tend to feel that there's a bias among print reporters especially towards teachers. What do you think?

LH: A bias towards teachers is an odd accusation. I was constantly called anti-teacher by the United Federation of Teachers here in the city, when I wrote about the abuses of the union. I thought that was an odd accusation too. Teachers are the lifeblood of the schools, and among a reporter’s best sources. It’s self-destructive to be hostile toward them. And it’s natural to develop personal working relationships with them (not their union heads).

That’s why I think there’s a bias towards them – they’re many reporters’ first sources of information, but they (teachers) don’t like change (who does?) and they are often focused narrowly on their classrooms and schools.

LH: Good reporters put all their reporting into broader context. So just because teachers’ voices are prominent in a story doesn’t mean the journalist takes everything they say as the overarching truth. I think a bigger journalistic problem lies with those reporters who consult only the school superintendents, those most removed from the classroom, leaving out the reality of those who are charged with implementing all the policies from above.

What about testing stories -- any tendency towards or against them?

LH: I think that if anything, far too much ink space is devoted to reporting test results without including information on what the tests are supposed to measure, how they are designed, what the results are used for, fairly or not.

How does Newsweek's coverage of education issues compare to Time or USNews?

LH: I don’t think any of the national newsweeklies cover public education well. That’s not for lack of enormous education journalistic talent, some of whom are my current and former students (in Newsweek)! But rankings and lists sell the most education covers. Both magazines are more interested in higher education than they are in public K12 schools. And both write very narrowly for upper middle class white audiences, which narrows the field enormously.

Reporters assigned to the education beat seem to end up covering what goes on among adults in schools as much as in the lives of students and their families is there anything that can be done about that? What about the old poverty beat -- should that get brought back?

LH: I would vote for a revival not of the poverty beat, but of the children’s beat, which includes poverty, justice, health, child welfare as well as education. Schools cannot be covered in a vacuum.

Got any favorite education writers?

LH: I admire Stephanie Banchero, Kate Boo, when she writes about education, the team at the Rocky Mountain News in Denver that recently reported the hell out of the dropout rates. John Hechinger at the Wall Street Journal. And I have a big bias toward my former students. Sarah Carr at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel is at the top of the heap, and all the good reporters at the Willamette Week in Portland, Oregon.

What do you think of bloggers (the education and or journalism ones, I mean), and what's it like having your work rated and dissected online by students with blogs?

LH: Feels a little like being ambushed by paint guns. Bloggers can be useful when they are pros who add knowledge to the debate and raise provocative questions. Bloggers who are just in the game to sling anonymous arrows and snarky opinions are a waste of cyberspace. There ought to be a minimum standard of expertise before a blog is taken seriously.

What about the Internet’s influence in general?

LH: Frankly, I have hope that the 24/7 internet news cycle will finally push newspapers off the daily scoop treadmill to value deep reporting, explanatory features, investigative series the kinds of treatment education stories need in order to say something meaningful.

Interest in journalism is apparently at an all time high (at least among undergrad programs), but it's not so clear how much of that is going to send good folks onto the education beat. Anyone besides Amanda interested in being a star education reporter?

LH: I’m guessing that less than 10 percent of our graduating class goes on to cover education. Part of the problem is ours -- we haven’t focused exclusively on it as a distinctive course before this year. The other problem is that it is notoriously one of the most difficult beats for journalism students to cover well in New York City. Every J-School student is required to write one education story per year here, and the roadblocks they encounter scare them away.

Can you tell us a little about your career as a reporter?

LH: I started off with lofty dreams of being a culture writer, which I managed to dabble in with the Village Voice literary supplement. And then, I sent my son to kindergarten in P.S. 95 in the Bronx, where I witnessed close to 100 untold stories a day. The rarefied life was over. I pitched a story to the Voice about the city’s illegal kindergarten classrooms. Soon I found myself carving out an investigative beat, covering everything from school board corruption to the curriculum wars. From there I became the education beat reporter at the New York Daily News.

What was your favorite part of being a reporter, and your biggest story?

LH: I most enjoyed writing for News readers who were parents of public school children for the most part. I then went on to work as an education writer at Newsweek, which was then a fairly neglected beat at the magazine. My favorite story there was not any of the cover articles but a sidebar on a South Bronx high school whose students disproved The Bell Curve theory that poor, minority kids cannot learn beyond their genetic predisposition.

What was it like being a journalist during a time of uncertainty and budget cutting?

LH: Wacky. The Daily News went into bankruptcy while I was there. I was trying to cover 1.1 million public school children solo with no resources, competing with papers like The New York Times and New York Newsday that had several reporters. So I had to work twice as hard.

Why did you leave the newsroom for Columbia, and what are you doing there?

LH: I left the newsroom to try my hand at writing books, to regain some autonomy over what I chose to write about, and to try and impart some standards to the next generation. I was hired as director of a mid-career program for child and family policy writers. I teach seminars on covering the youth beat, and now one on covering education.

How much substantive interaction is there (if any) between the program you're involved with, TC, and Hechinger?

LH: We are working together right now to launch a course at the Journalism School on covering the education beat. As far as we’ve been able to determine (and this is not good news), it will be the first course like it among the nation’s journalism schools, undergrad and graduate. The Hechinger Institute is providing funding, resource assistance, and a fountain of intelligence. The plan is to pilot the course at Columbia and eventually offer it as a model to other journalism schools.

What are the main things you're trying to teach to your students or get across about being a reporter and covering education these days?

LH: Never suspend your sense of skepticism, or your sense of outrage. Understand the grave responsibility you have as a journalist to use your press freedom fairly and wisely. Personal integrity is your most valuable asset. Dig for the unexpected, ask the unasked questions. Always be aware that reporting is never done. There is always another phone call to make, another document to find, another door to knock on. Be humble in the face of everything that you don’t yet know.

How about pet peeves things you see in print or read in your students' work that make you cringe?

LH: I can’t even go there at this point in the semester.


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