Democracy is hard. It’s even harder when journalists don’t do their jobs.
Such has been the case the past couple of weeks regarding an Arkansas bill that sounds like it cuts school lunches for poor kids, but doesn’t.
Senate Bill 349 by Sen. Alan Clark, R-Lonsdale, would set up a process for reducing and then ending National School Lunch Act state categorical funding for some poorly performing districts.
If you read that quickly, what word stood out? For many, it’s “lunch.” That's especially the case for those who also might be inclined to react unfavorably to the “R” beside Clark’s name.
The bill actually has nothing to do with cutting lunches. A small part of state education funding is based on the amount of federal dollars schools receive for free and reduced price lunches through the National School Lunch Act. The state’s NSLA categorical funding comes from a different pot and is meant to fund anti-poverty programs.
Clark’s bill would create a three-year process whereby lower-scoring schools would first have to obtain training in the science of reading. They then would lose some of their funding if they showed no improvement the next year. They would lose all of it if they didn’t improve the next.
“National School Lunch Act categorical funding” is boring, bureaucratic language, but it’s a journalist’s job to wade through these things and actually read bills – especially these days, when our work is sometimes the first draft to be copied and reposted on social media to suit other people’s agendas.
Unfortunately, several journalistic outlets did not do this. Several in Arkansas and Memphis reported that Clark was trying to cut school lunches. One Memphis TV station since Feb. 21 has headlined its version, “Arkansas legislator proposes cutting lunch funding from schools that struggle to improve reading skills.”
The story has been picked up by outlets across the country, and that’s when the angry phone calls, emails and social media posts started coming in. On Monday night, Clark talked to someone from Hawaii. Of those he’s tried to engage, only a few have been willing to consider his explanation of what the bill actually does.
Meanwhile, despite the story appearing in media outlets across the country, I was only the fourth journalist who has interviewed him. Two of the others, the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette and KATV Channel 7, interviewed him early and got the story right the first time.
“Without ever talking to me, they went out and wrote this story and aired this story about cutting school lunches, and so I’m getting calls from you name it, anywhere in the country, hate mail, thousands, social media, and the crazy thing is people won’t even believe that it’s not true,” he told me.
Misinformation like this is the result of financial and cultural realities. The business model for many media outlets is to offer a free product funded by advertisers. To justify their ad prices, media outlets need viewers, readers and, especially these days, clicks. “Arkansas legislator proposes cutting lunch funding” delivers those better than many political stories. Meanwhile, many outlets have small, inexperienced staffs with a lot to cover, and they don’t have enough persnickety editors.
Then there’s the reality that “Arkansas legislator proposes cutting lunch funding” deliciously reinforces some people’s biases, in and out of the newsroom. Of course that (red state, redneck) Arkansas (Republican) legislator wants to starve poor kids. He’s on THAT team!
The solution? Journalists must slow down and get the story right, and when they don’t, correct it. Regardless of our occupation, we all must be aware of our biases. We must avoid assuming the worst of others – particularly before posting and reposting something that can go viral online.
As for the bill, it has yet to be heard in committee. There, legitimate arguments will be offered for and against it. Opponents will say we shouldn't take anti-poverty funds from poor schools. Supporters will say that legislators long have asked if schools are using the money to close achievement gaps, or if some are just throwing it into a big pot to fund operations.
That’s a hard debate that should be reported. Accurately.
Steve Brawner is a syndicated columnist in Arkansas. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @stevebrawner.