Editor’s Desk

Today’s ‘news’ often lacks balance

May 30, 2014 

Years ago, an assistant superintendent of schools asked me if I thought traditional journalists would survive the explosion of reporting online, on TV and in print.

I told him I thought the proliferation of information would place a premium on trained journalists who could gather, analyze, synthesize and report the news.

I like to think I was right. Certainly, the amount of information has exploded, especially to anyone with access to a computer, tablet or smartphone. But it seems to me that much of the information is decidedly one-sided, serving not the reader but a point of view.

The other day, a Facebook friend posted what appeared to be a classified ad from a newspaper. In it, the Houston Independent School District let readers know it was coming to Raleigh in search of teachers. The starting pay: $46,805 a year, or about $16,000 more than a first-year in North Carolina. My Facebook friend’s message: North Carolina, we can do better than this.

My Facebook friend wasn’t writing a news story, so I wasn’t expecting context from her post, but I went looking for some anyway. It turns out that the gap between first-year teacher compensation in North Carolina and Houston isn’t as wide as a cursory comparison suggests.

For starters, the cost of living in Houston is much higher than it is in much of North Carolina. According to the website Numbeo, someone earning $3,600 a month in Charlotte would need to earn $4,688 a month to enjoy the same standard of living in Houston. Over the course of a year, that’s more than $12,000, or about 75 percent of the difference between first-year teacher pay in the two cities. (Raleigh teachers, however, might want decamp for Houston, because according to Numbeo, it costs more to live in the Wake County city than in the Texas metropolis.)

Or does it? In 2013, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, state employees in North Carolina paid either nothing or $22.76 a month for individual health insurance. Teachers in Houston have five premium choices for employee-only coverage, beginning at $22.82 a month and topping out at $232.66 a month. That means that while a North Carolina teacher can pay nothing in a year for health insurance, a Houston teacher can pay more than $2,300, further closing the gap between North Carolina and Houston teacher pay.

In defense of Texas, it has no income tax, which helps explain that state’s economic growth of late. But I also read a study that said Texas teachers contribute more and their employees less to their pension.

A Facebook post didn’t tell me all of the above. But a trained journalist writing about teacher pay could and, I hope, would.

Also this past week, I read a transcript of a hearing on Capitol Hill. In short, a senator was arguing that if Walmart paid a decent wage, its employees would not need Medicaid for their children, food stamps and government-subsidized housing. He then suggested that public assistance for Walmart employees amounted to corporate welfare for the Walton family, Walmart’s owners.

A couple of speakers at the hearing balanced the senator’s point of view. One, for example, said the minimum wage could climb too high, reaching the point where Walmart would choose not to hire employees. Another noted that while no one is forced to work at Walmart, the retailer had 12 applicants for every opening at a new a store in Washington, D.C.

But while this online report was colorful, it was sorely lacking in useful numbers. I wanted to know, for example, how many people Walmart employs in the United States, what percentage of those employees receive public assistance, the value of that public assistance in dollars, the percentage of all Americans receiving public assistance and the taxes paid by the Walton family.

For all I know, the percentage of Walmart workers receiving public assistance is lower than the percentage of Americans receiving aid. For all I know, the Walton family pays more in taxes than its employees receive in public assistance, in which case the Walton family would be subsidizing recipients of public assistance elsewhere.

I would hope a trained journalist covering that hearing would fill in the blanks for me.

But I will concede that hope does not always mesh with reality. The TV talking heads are the worst, bringing in, say, a Walmart defender and Walmart detractor and never putting their “facts” under a microscope. But I have also read too many “he said, she said” stories in newspapers, especially of late as newspaper newsrooms have shrunk.

But I stand by my argument that in this age of information proliferation, trained journalists should command a premium. Stories need balance and context, and both are sorely lacking amid today’s explosion of content that partisans would have you believe is news.

sbolejack@newsobserver.com

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