Sunday, January 11, 2009

Shame on The Columbus Dispatch

This is a response to The Columbus Dispatch editorial of January 7, 2009, titled “Teaching moment.”

Implicit in the opening of the Dispatch’s editorial is that the rights of the Mount Vernon middle school science teacher, John Freshwater, are a waste of taxpayer money.

The Dispatch concluded that Freshwater is guilty of the allegations against him—and his attorney has not even started his defense.

Although the Dispatch acknowledges that Freshwater is “entitled by state law” to the hearing that is now underway, the Dispatch dismisses that the outcome may be in Freshwater’s favor.

I understand that an editorial necessarily contains opinion but even then there are rules of ethics that apply. According to the Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics, even analysis and commentary must not “misrepresent fact or context.”

Also according to the Code of Ethics, a journalist should “Test the accuracy of information from all sources and exercise care to avoid inadvertent error. Deliberate distortion is never permissible.”

The Dispatch uses information from the report done by H.R. On Call, Inc. as if it speaks with finality on the controversy. This is despite that Freshwater’s attorney has called the reliability of that report into question.

The Dispatch credits a statement, in paragraph six of the editorial, to Freshwater that makes it sound as if Freshwater has said he has burned marks onto students. Nowhere in this editorial does it clarify this by reminding the reader that Freshwater’s position is that he has not done this. In the words of Freshwater, on August 4th 2008, “I have never, never, branded or burned a person.”

(Video of John Freshwater addressing the allegations against him.)

The Dispatch stated, as one argument against Freshwater, that “A high-school teacher testified that she often had to re-teach the basics of evolution to students who had been in Freshwater’s classes.”

However, the Mount Vernon News of January 7, 2009, stated that in the testimony the day before, by the owner of HR On Call, Thomas Herlevi, “There was no empirical evidence that high school teachers had to ‘reteach’ Freshwater students.” This is important because the HR On Call report contained “testimony” by a teacher alleging the need to re-teach students. The Dispatch editorial does not say where the testimony they allege came from—it may have been from the report by HR On Call.

The Dispatch wrote that a “high-school teacher” was re-teaching Freshwater’s students “for fear that they would fail that part of the state proficiency test.”

Interestingly, the Dispatch itself published, the day after the editorial, that science teacher Bill Oxenford testified at the hearing that Freshwater’s students “scored higher than the other science classes despite having the higher number of special needs students.”

The editorial, however, says that Freshwater has a “demonstrated disregard for science” which “disqualifies him to teach in public schools.”

A teacher who has students with the highest scores is not someone with a disregard for the subject that he teaches.

The Dispatch says that another one of the reasons it believes Freshwater to be disqualified to teach is “his poor judgment with the electrical device.”

Poor judgment? Good grief.

Freshwater is not the only teacher to have used the electrostatic device in question on students and to have considered it safe.

Back in August 4th 2008 one of his fellow teachers, Lori Miller, spoke before the school board and said that she has used the device in the same manner that Freshwater has without incident. “I have never had a concern or an issue with it and I cannot honesty comprehend how that device can burn an individual as alleged,” Miller said.

(Video of Lori Miller speaking to school board.)

It doesn’t stop there. Oxenford, called to testify at the hearing by the school board’s attorney, also mentioned using a similar device on students. According to a Dispatch article on January 9, 2009, “Oxenford said he'd touch the tip of the device to a student's fingertip, a sensation he described as ‘not pleasant,’ but not dangerous. He said he never saw or heard of anyone being injured.”

The Dispatch editorial was not just a rush to judgment. It was a deliberate disregard of facts and context.

What agenda does the editorial board of the Dispatch have?

The Dispatch says in the editorial that “The mistake was not in firing Freshwater but in waiting so long to do it.” The editorial characterizes Freshwater as a part of a group of “teachers whose personal beliefs get in the way of their responsibility to educate.”

Is the Dispatch editorial about some real or perceived difference in beliefs between them and Freshwater? The Code of Ethics states that a journalist should “Examine their own cultural values and avoid imposing those values on others.” The Code of Ethics also states that a journalist should avoid stereotyping based on religion.

In the concluding paragraph of the editorial, the Dispatch says that “Other school districts with budding John Freshwaters should take heed.”

Who is a “budding John Freshwater”?

Is that someone who holds different beliefs than that of the Dispatch editorial board—but is still able to teach science well enough to be the “best” by state testing standards?

The last sentence of the editorial reads, “Confronting a popular teacher is controversial, but preserving sound education is essential.”

What does the Dispatch mean by “sound education”?

We already know that for the people who wrote the Dispatch editorial “sound education” does not necessarily include teaching that results in top scores on state tests.

What, then, does “sound education” mean? Does it mean education taught by someone who never disagrees with the Dispatch’s editorial positions?

The Columbus Dispatch editorial “Teaching moment” was a disappointing example of journalism. The Dispatch should retract the editorial and issue John Freshwater a written apology for the journalistic misconduct that the Dispatch editorial board engaged in on January 7, 2009.

Read more about The Columbus Dispatch’s involvement in the Freshwater controversy: “Dispatch Editor and Son Testified for MV School Board.”

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