Thursday, July 29, 2010

Van Jones, Shirley Sherrod and Me(dia): The Parenting Media Meets the Body Politic

Anyone with a laptop and a flip camera can engineer a fake info-virus and inject it into the body politic. Those with cable TV shows and axes to grind can concoct their own realities. The high standards and wise judgments of people like Walter Cronkite once acted as our national immune system, zapping scandal-mongers and quashing wild rumors. As a step toward further democratizing America, we shrunk those old gatekeepers — and ended up weakening democracy’s defenses. Rapidly developing communication technologies did the rest.
Could have been me talking but this was Van Jones, a former White House advisor and no, he hasn't been worrying about exaggerated claims about breastfeeding, the risks of phthalates, sunscreen, vaccines or whatever the scare du jour. At least not in public. He's actually calling out the media maelstrom infecting Washington, the internet rumor mill gone amok taking down government middle managers to VIPS, including himself and most recently Shirley Sherrod, a former Department of Agriculture employee who resigned last week after some right-wing website distorted her comments. His op-ed in Sunday's New York Times does, however, read like a primer on the current state of affairs in the parenting media (Shirley Sherrod and Me). The parallels are bright and shiny, how could I not sit up and listen:

The imperative to immediately and constantly churn out news on even the most minor bit of controversy leads news organizations, and partisans posing as news organizations, to cross the line from responsible reporting to dangerous rumor-mongering.
Most minor bit of controversy. Or I might add, most minor, inconclusive, speculative or crappy research finding.

Instead of partisans posing as new organizations we got special interest groups, journalists without science degrees, celebrities posing as experts, researchers greasing their own pockets and padding their vitaes not to mention a whole slew of others eager to tell moms and dads what to do, fill content, and otherwise muck up the media.

The information system gives us more data than ever before, faster than ever before. But we don’t yet have the wisdom in place to help us deal with it.
AHhhh. Data without wisdom. Hallelujah. Pump up the wisdom. Pump up the respect for science too. Amen.

Now Van worries that this info-free-for-all endangers democratic society. Me, don't pretend to know a thing about the birth and death of democracies. I'm just trying to tamp down the drama behind insipid studies and tease out the real results. I'm as patriotic as the next mom at the Fourth of July bike parade thirsting for a iced grande decaf latte, but I do know the consequences of not-quite-right to downright false claims about children's health.

The solution? Of course Jones would like to see more accuracy and a better system to get at it. But short-term, my man Van says we shouldn't rush to judgment. Learn to be more patient. Sounded corny at first, I know, my thoughts too but read on:

But the big breakthrough will come not when we are better able to spot the lies. It will come when we are better able to handle the truth about people. We are complex beings; no one is all good or all bad.
Hmm. Sounds an awful lot like how we should approach each new study.

We have to understand that no one can be defined by a single photograph, open-mike gaffe or sound bite. Not even our greatest leaders could have survived if they had to be taken to task for every poorly conceived utterance or youthful demonstration of immature political views.
Nor every research finding put on a pedestal as the final word, the ultimate word, the defacto evidence you are harming your child....gotta take it as one piece of evidence, weighing it against the whole body of knowledge - including future work.

When it comes to politics in the age of Facebook, the killer app to stop the “gotcha” bullies won’t be a technological one — it will be a wiser, more forgiving culture.
Yeah, well, the parallels to politics and public officials being crucified break down there because we've been all too forgiving when it comes to prosaic parenting articles, fear-mongering factoids, dramatic directives and our "unweeded garden" of sorts not in Denmark, but KiddieLand. Been all too patient. Oh, yeah, this time the stench is coming from our computers, magazines, newspapers, the pediatrician's office, the woman who wrote the book and just became the latest media sensation and expert, the mom next to us in line frowning at our Pop Tarts.

And why do we accept the current state of affairs? Are we not eager to hear the nuances, to learn that each and every study is not as dramatic as we've been led to believe? Maybe we've become drama addicts. 

Look at all the cinematic fluff that passes for good reading. The I-Give-My-Preschooler-Vodka-Shots race to worst mommy. The "newsier" pieces like The 10 Things In Your Backyard That Can Kill Your Kid stuff. Hey, I love reading those too - but they're like junk food. Quick, tasty, addicting. And like all good drugs, not so good for rational thought (with the exception of Adderall).

Political news geeks who care about the details got their sites. Fact Checker. The Political Junkie. As much as I'd like to see it, no such well-regarded, well-established, well-known, well-funded, etc. place exists for we parents.

Why no outrage over our missing media watch dogs?

Ever wonder why The Big Political Scandal of the day makes the front page much more often than some investigative report on children's health. Gotta wonder why.  Politics trumps parenting like every news cycle. 

Yes, something stinks for sure.

8 comments:

TherExtras said...

Aw, come-on, Polly. Tell us how you really feel. *wink*

I agree with you.

Barbara

Polly Palumbo, Ph.D. said...

Thanks for "listening", Barbara!

TherExtras said...

I've been thinking...I should have made a more explicit agreement, just because. I think the media are poor interpreters of science, weather and sociological reports. (Weather, too, for that matter.)

Guess you have been busy, but came back to tell you that I have seen billboards in our town extolling the benefits of breastfeeding. A website is given - I think this is it:
http://breastmilkisbest.com/blog/

And

I went out on a limb with opinion here, and want to know if you are interested in this fray:

http://thegrasswidowsdiary.blogspot.com/2010/08/why-we-chose-public-school.html

Barbara

Polly Palumbo, Ph.D. said...

Ohh lots of good things, Barbara! Breastfeeding is best billboards? Couldn't find the link on that site - too bad, the nurse-blogger reported the other stuff (i.e. food allergies) without bias. Anyhow, where are you seeing the billboards?

Ahh, public-private! We could go on and on for HOURS, DAYS, WEEKS! Myself, I'm a product of mostly private, with two school teacher parents who started their careers in public, my father, for probably 30 years, then went private, thus, my educational experience.

It's a very complicated topic. There are so many factors, so many different children, schools, parents, etc. I've looked at research trying *yes* trying to look at differences. What I took away - among children of the same SES and similar other personal/cultural characteristics, the only established differences between public and private-schooled teens and young adults (don't know if younger kids studied that much) seems to be cognitive and creating thinking skills, esp. abstract reasoning. That's probably what private spends more time on - the creative cognitive thinking made possible when you're teaching to a class of higher achieving students, bc let's face it, they don't have to teach to the lower achieving ones. That said, there are some studies that find no differences - it's so hard to get at. And I often wonder about that...

As for diversity, we all know there's research out there singing the benefits of diversity on problem-solving, social relations, etc in adult settings. College presidents certainly believe it. But I don't think it's limited to ethnic or economic diversity. And again, there are so many confounds...but I haven't looked into it or read about it for a while. Maybe diversity teaches more empathy, etc, those more interpersonal effects are easier to believe, right? than the more purely cognitive/academic ones but in higher education, where larger societal topics arise, it might come into play more - i.e. in the poli sci class or even lit class.

I should reveal my kids go to private school in a town with a well-regarded school system, yes, we get asked all the time why we went private. There's no simple, simple answer, but a lot of it had to do with my oldest daughter's disposition mainly, her early reading, and birtday in descending importance. She was and still is quite reserved in school, barely spoke in preschool, so class size was a very important factor for us - and as you may know class size (esp. in the early grades) is one factor that keeps showing up over and over on student achievement. So we really thought long and hard about when and where to send her. This all goes to show that it's never a simple solution, and it so depends on the child. Not sure if we'd have made the same choice if our second daughter, who is more outgoing, was the oldest.

Of course I then look at my husband, the product of an inner-city high school, and not the magnet, much-coveted kind. He's done just fine and would have probably ended up just where he is if he'd gone to a well-rated suburban school or private school.

Do I wish we had more answers? Clearly!

BTW, been at 2 conferences in the past week, hence my silence - BlogHer 10 in NYC, and one by Media Bistro - hope to write more later today..

Polly Palumbo, Ph.D. said...

Ohh lots of good things, Barbara! Breastfeeding is best billboards? Couldn't find the link on that site - too bad, the nurse-blogger reported the other stuff (i.e. food allergies) without bias. Anyhow, where are you seeing the billboards?

Ahh, public-private! We could go on and on for HOURS, DAYS, WEEKS! Myself, I'm a product of mostly private, with two school teacher parents who started their careers in public, my father, for probably 30 years, then went private, thus, my educational experience.

It's a very complicated topic. There are so many factors, so many different children, schools, parents, etc. I've looked at research trying *yes* trying to look at differences. What I took away - among children of the same SES and similar other personal/cultural characteristics, the only established differences between public and private-schooled teens and young adults (don't know if younger kids studied that much) seems to be cognitive and creating thinking skills, esp. abstract reasoning. That's probably what private spends more time on - the creative cognitive thinking made possible when you're teaching to a class of higher achieving students, bc let's face it, they don't have to teach to the lower achieving ones. That said, there are some studies that find no differences - it's so hard to get at. And I often wonder about that...

As for diversity, we all know there's research out there singing the benefits of diversity on problem-solving, social relations, etc in adult settings. College presidents certainly believe it. But I don't think it's limited to ethnic or economic diversity. And again, there are so many confounds...but I haven't looked into it or read about it for a while. Maybe diversity teaches more empathy, etc, those more interpersonal effects are easier to believe, right? than the more purely cognitive/academic ones but in higher education, where larger societal topics arise, it might come into play more - i.e. in the poli sci class or even lit class.

I should reveal my kids go to private school in a town with a well-regarded school system, yes, we get asked all the time why we went private. There's no simple, simple answer, but a lot of it had to do with my oldest daughter's disposition mainly, her early reading, and birtday in descending importance. She was and still is quite reserved in school, barely spoke in preschool, so class size was a very important factor for us - and as you may know class size (esp. in the early grades) is one factor that keeps showing up over and over on student achievement. So we really thought long and hard about when and where to send her. This all goes to show that it's never a simple solution, and it so depends on the child. Not sure if we'd have made the same choice if our second daughter, who is more outgoing, was the oldest.

Of course I then look at my husband, the product of an inner-city high school, and not the magnet, much-coveted kind. He's done just fine and would have probably ended up just where he is if he'd gone to a well-rated suburban school or private school.

Do I wish we had more answers? Clearly!

BTW, been at 2 conferences in the past week, hence my silence - BlogHer 10 in NYC, and one by Media Bistro - hope to write more later today..

Barbara said...

What? You didn't tweet from BlogHer?!

Polly Palumbo, Ph.D. said...

I know, I know, I am a dinosaur! I do not yet do mobile tweets. Didn't take my heavy laptop however maybe I'll be less overwhelmed next year if I can make San Diego work...

TherExtras said...

Heh. Excellent post on your BlogHer experience. You might enjoy this one, too:
http://www.thesnyder5.com/2010/08/blogher-was-complicated-or-maybe-i-am.html

I'm gonna pass on getting into the public/private school debate here but might go back to the one I showed you. Primarily, I docked the blogger for her reasons - doubting that the opportunity for 'diversity' truly decided for the public schools, or seriously affected her children's social attitudes. Oy. I just remembered, last evening I had a college student at my table ... a great story but not mine to share.

Barbara