I’m often a critic of the news media (just check out my media tag for many examples), and very often it’s for sloppy, lazy reporting that treats PR spin as legitimate news. Recently I saw an AFP story on Yahoo News entitled “US officials flunk test of Amerian[sic] history, economics, civics” (the title was later corrected). I was expecting a little chuckle, until I realised the joke was on readers of this story—and it’s a perfect example of media laziness.
The story detailed how poorly both elected officials and ordinary citizens did on a quiz offered by something called “Intercollegiate Studies Institute (ISI)”. Naturally, I wondered who this “ISI” was, and got suspicious when I read: “The question that received the fewest correct responses, just 16 percent, tested respondents' basic understanding of economic principles, asking why ‘free markets typically secure more economic prosperity than government's centralized planning?’ Without some heavy-duty modifiers, the validity of that question is highly debatable and the “correct” answer highly suspect.
The article also included, unchallenged, the bizarre statement “Activities that dull Americans' civic knowledge include talking on the phone and watching movies or television—even news shows and documentaries, ISI said.” Say what? How on earth did they arrive at that absurd conclusion? The article didn’t say.
So I checked out ISI, and found that “ISI seeks to enhance the rising generation's knowledge of our nation's founding principles — limited government, individual liberty, personal responsibility, the rule of law, market economy, and moral norms.” “Moral norms”? And what might those be? “The values, customs, conventions, and norms of the Judeo-Christian tradition inform and guide a free society. Without such ordinances, society induces its decay by embracing a relativism that rejects an objective moral order.”
They’re clearly a right-wing group whose slant on American values I don’t share. Quite frankly, I couldn’t care less about them, their ideology or how highly they think of themselves. What concerns me is how much play this story got, almost invariably treated as legitimate news.
Some of their questions may be valid, like asking who the US’ enemies were in World War Two or what the Electoral College is for, but clearly their goal is to foster a conservative worldview, which makes the whole thing slanted. The article should’ve pointed out the conservative nature of ISI so that readers could better evaluate the validity of the quiz and decide for themselves whether any conclusions based on it were justified. I found out within a few minutes’ clicking. Why are journalists too lazy to do the same?