Critiquing the AJC’s Half True Investigative Story

Today the Atlanta Journal-Constitution is running my truncated rebuttal aimed at its front page story from Sunday, September 4 headlined, “No recession in college pay.” The online headline was “10% of college staff earning $100k-plus.”

In writing the rebuttal, I used the criteria of the AJC’s PolitiFact column which rates public statements from pants-on-fire lies to fully true. PolitiFact says when a “statement is accurate but leaves out important details. That’s our definition of Half True.”

Half truth, that’s also my definition of this six-figure university salary investigative piece. It is accurate but leaves out important details.

I believe my rebuttal, using numbers, provides more context in helping understand who actually is getting those six-figures and why. Greater context would have enhanced the level of debate among those who think state-financed faculty, administrators and staff are overpaid and those who think they are underpaid. Instead judging from the comments of the politician in the AJC story and one of the students paying tuition, the impression was these six-figures salary are an outrage that needs to be fixed.

Half-truth journalism, because of its lack of depth, sounds much more sensational and quickly gets on the radar of grandstanding policy makers and politicians, which results in bad policy and bad lawmaking that stays in place long after those headlines disappear.

It really pains me to write this critique because Georgia is a state dominated by one party and it has a history of inequalities and many varieties of malfeasance and incompetency. Strong investigative journalism is needed. Indeed, it is essential for the long-term health of our local, state, regional and national democracies.

Many of the AJC’s investigations are spot-on and much needed. However, in its zeal to become known as an investigative, muckraking paper, some of its investigations resemble 6 o’clock TV, inch-deep investigative news rather than investigative reporting worthy of the state’s largest news organization. I am writing this in a hope that the leadership, reporters, editors and investigative units at the AJC take some time for reflection, and, perhaps, have some folks they respect review and critique everything that is pegged as investigative journalism.

I am afraid the crooked, unethical and incompetent folks who have been legitimately investigated will use my words to tar all the AJC investigations. This piece is not aimed at defending their actions nor at defending the bureaucratic systems that fail to serve us well. All of them need to be investigated, but that comes with a responsibility that requires in-depth reporting that goes deep beyond the veneer.

As readers and members of the public, we must demand it.

Leonard Witt is the executive director of the Center for Sustainable Journalism at Kennesaw State University. Its mission is to find ways to ensure that high quality, ethically journalism has an enduring place in our democracy.

4 Responses to Critiquing the AJC’s Half True Investigative Story
  1. SpaceyG on Twitter
    September 12, 2011 | 11:23 am

    So… how much do YOU make, Leonard? In the spirit of transparency, of course.

  2. Leonard Witt
    September 12, 2011 | 11:33 am

    Hi Grayson:

    You are a journalist, look it up. It is public information.

  3. Jeff A. Taylor
    September 12, 2011 | 1:56 pm

    Wow. The snark is strong with this one.

    Let’s start by stipulating that SOME public sector jobs are worth $100K and that $100K is merely a short-hand marker for how any given workforce is dealing with a jobs depression.

    If you mean to say that tracking $100K jobs is a meaningless metric, say that. But you do not. You argue that the growth in $100K jobs is justified; that such spending is an investment which will — eventually — pay off for taxpayers currently footing the bill and which, in any event, is unavoidable given the salary structures of tech and medicine.

    Bottomline, you are challenging the premise of the AJC story not the accuracy or “truth.” As such, labeling it a “half-truth” is, well, misleading. Untruthful.

    Further, I’d argue — based on a couple decades of covering tech — that YOUR premise is flawed. It does not follow that instructors — let’s NOT assume full, tenured profs unless we know that to be the case — running 175 undergrads a semester thru programming 101 SHOULD make more that $85K a year. It may well be that the students are MORE valuable to the private-sector employers who will hire them than the instructors are to cost-conscious universities who understand that quality pros who want a time-out from the coding rat-race might be available at a fraction of their “academic” counterparts.

    Understand that the credential-obsessed “research” realm is not the same thing as the does-it-work world of commercial enterprise software. There is some overlap, granted. And there is also tens of millions of dollars being booked with software built by musicians and English majors.

    But let’s dig even deeper into the genesis of this story. Previously the AJC went deep into the hows and whys of bonuses for the Atlanta public school system and struck gold. Fraud. Fraud that was initially denied by ALL entities remotely associated with the system — including a full-on misinformation campaign from the local Chamber of Commerce. Not surprisingly, knowing how newsrooms work, someone may have decided a similar core-sample of public sector college salaries might be in order. This process does not strike me as good or bad, just reality but I’m left wondering if your reaction to the college salary piece is somehow colored by the feeling that the AJC’s education coverage in general is “too hostile” to increased public spending.

    Finally, as a very recent transplant to Cobb County, this passage baffled me:

    It really pains me to write this critique because Georgia is a state dominated by one party and it has a history of inequalities and many varieties of malfeasance and incompetency.

    How is partisan politics remotely relevant? How can past “malfeasance and incompetency” be relevant — unless you are arguing that unchecked public sector education spending is some sort of reparation? Is it? Should it be?

    More specifically, if some sort of partisan anti-spending bias exists locally, how is that a tax-raising $900m. light rail project for Cobb is backed by a bipartisan cadre of power brokers who totally accept your “investment” paradigm?

    I am sorry, but absent some more thoughtful framing on this issue, I am left wondering if my new neighbor up the road is the Center for Sustainable Journalism, or the Center for Incoherent Jeremiads.

    Thanks for listening.

  4. Leonard Witt
    September 12, 2011 | 3:34 pm

    Hi Jeff:

    Remember my definition of a half truth came from the AJC PolitiFact column which says when a “statement is accurate but leaves out important details. That’s our definition of Half True.

    Below are the opening paragraphs of the AJC’s investigative story, it is a premise they were going to highlight without looking deeper than their gotcha investigation. My argument is that they should go deeper and include important details.

    Indeed, from your comments about Ga Tech it seems you would have agreed. Personally I would like to know too: Are college professors overpaid or underpaid? This investigative piece came no where near answering that question. It should have. Here are the story’s opening paragraphs:

    The Great Recession brought high unemployment, government budget cuts and years without raises to many workers, but that’s hard to tell from Georgia public university payrolls.

    Between 2007 and 2010, the number of six-figure staffers in the University System of Georgia jumped 30 percent, and the number making at least $200,000 rose 46 percent, according to an Atlanta Journal-Constitution review of state audit records.

    More than 4,300 people — about 10 percent of system employees — were paid more than $100,000 a year in 2010.

    Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle said the numbers are frustrating to state leaders who have been chopping the budget since the recession began.

    “At a time when we’ve had drastic cutbacks, we find a University System that continues to be in a spending mode,” Cagle said. “It is extremely frustrating when we are putting pressure on the University System to help us balance our budget and hear them say the sky is falling, only to find out that we are having a 46 percent increase. It seems unreasonable.”

    It seems unreasonable, but if they had included the important details, maybe it would not have been unreasonable at all.

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