To Foster a Higher-Quality Teacher Workforce, What’s the Best Policy Lever to Pull?


“As President Obama has emphasized, the single most important factor determining whether students succeed in school is not the color of their skin or their ZIP code or even their parents’ income — it is the quality of their teacher,” declared a “How to Fix Our Schools” manifesto signed by 16 school superintendents, published in 2010 in the Washington Post.

Then and now, education policy debates increasingly focus on teacher quality. How can governments encourage existing teachers to work harder, train them to work more effectively, or change the composition of the teacher workforce so that talented educators enter and stay in the profession, while weak teachers leave? Two popular policies to achieve these goals are merit pay and teacher evaluation systems that clear the way for firing consistently poor performers.

On April 26, capping NYU Wagner’s Spring 2012 Doctoral Research Colloquium Speaker Series, UC-Berkeley Associate Professor Jesse Rothstein examined the efficacy of those two policy levers in a presentation of his working paper, “Teacher Quality Policy When Supply Matters.” Using the most reliable empirical data available, the paper builds a simulation model to estimate the effects of pay-for-performance and performance-based retention on teacher effectiveness.

Rothstein, former chief economist for the U.S. Department of Labor, is a cogent critic of the use of “value-added measures” in teacher evaluation. “VAMs” apply sophisticated statistical methods to student standardized test scores to isolate teacher impact on student learning. In an earlier paper, he showed that the same methodology used to measure teacher performance in North Carolina could also prove that 5th grade teachers had large “effects” on 4th grade student achievement. Failing this type of falsification test is a damning indictment of any statistical model that tries to prove causal effects. Yet VAMs remain the dominant approach to measuring teacher performance.

In his current research, Rothstein sets aside his skepticism of VAMs to “cook the model” in favor of these policies. “I’m making the best-case argument for merit pay and performance retention, assuming that we have an unbiased, uncorrupted performance measure,” he said at the outset of his presentation.

What he found was that both bonuses and firing policies have moderate positive effects. They are expensive policies but stack up reasonably in their cost-effectiveness to other well-studied educational interventions. Neither policy had much impact on who enters the teacher workforce. Instead, both approaches (more so with performance retention) showed that poor teachers would drop out over time.

This is pretty thin support for a pair of policies the Obama administration has effectively endorsed through their signature education initiative, the Race to the Top grant competition. At least 42 states are home to school districts that have some form of merit pay, and the number continues to grow. Performance-based teacher retention is also on the rise around the nation. Rothstein’s model suggests that it is possible that these policies may do some good, on an order of magnitude similar to the effect of reductions in class size. However, this finding assumes away the very real problems with VAMs, essential components to most performance pay or retention schemes as they exist today. As Rothstein argued in January in the NY Times, “…truly effective teaching does have long-run payoffs, but value-added analysis does a poor job of measuring it.” Until policymakers have access to reasonable performance measure, it’s tough to make a decent case for policies that hinge entirely on such metrics.


Wagner alumnus John White, the new state superintendent of education for Louisiana, discusses school reform at Rice Forum


If you had the chance to rebuild a school system, what would you do?

Just ask recent NYU Wagner graduate John White (EMPA ’11), the newly appointed State Superintendent of Education for Louisiana. He returned to Wagner for the 2012 Henry Hart Rice Urban Policy Forum on April 23, where he gave the keynote speech.

A former school teacher, Teach for America official and New York City education official, White discussed the administrator’s path to meaningful school reform. The Rice event is an annual forum on issues paramount to the future of cities and urban policy.

Until quite recently, White served as Superintendent of the state-run New Orleans Recovery School District (RSD). In this high-profile role, he explored and utilized mechanisms designed to foster a more responsive, efficient and effective school system. The constellation of schools in the district were spread across areas overwhelmed by the  Hurricane Katrina disaster.

White described some of these mechanisms, and focused, too, on the national education reform debate across sectors, saying it has been framed with false dichotomies. For White, regardless of where individuals stand on issues such as the relevance of poverty and family background, we have no choice but to acknowledge the problems afflicting the public education system and redouble efforts to improve it.

The solution, he says, lies in a new mode of policy making that diverges from the one  that  reformers and traditionalists alike advocate. What is “education, ” after all, but the choices  that are made every day on behalf of students and schools, and the quality of those choices. If we are to revive our school systems for the 21st century, he said, we must revisit our definition of education and include within it the right to attain a vibrant education and equity of educational opportunity. Improving education systems also has implications for our nation’s competitiveness in the global knowledge economy.

Today, many schools operate in spite of the overall education system, not because of it. White’s experiences have helped to shape his belief that a school district based on top-down directives is not going to be one that is responsive, flexible, and adaptive. In America, he said, the problem comes down to such troubled systems and a crisis of governance. It is hardly the fault of the people within a system, or even of funding challenges it may have, according to White. Rather, the greatest tragedy of the American education system is despite massive investments and reform efforts, school systems and education outcomes have changed little if at all.

As Superintendent of the RSD in New Orleans, White oversaw an initiative that placed in state hands those schools in which students had underperformed consistently. While the larger school system was left in tact, the state turned over the long-faltering schools to autonomous charter schools, whose principals has the authority to hire and assess instructors. At the same time, certain funding incentives enabled the school system to re-evaluate its primary purpose and core responsibility of providing standards, intervening when standards are not met, and ensuring equity.

Where there are strong standards for education excellence and informed, empowered school-based leadership, there will be better on-site governance. So education systems need to be open to innovation and change from the ground up to meet the diverse needs and challenges of local schools, he said.

Moreover, the polarized conversation about education reform cannot take place in isolation from the front-end equation of inputs. Regardless of partisan politics, the nation must recognize the importance of funding research on public education, investment in classroom technology, and workforce development for teachers in order to combat inequity and boost competitiveness. Local schools, he said, should not be the least technologically equipped facilities in any locale, and teacher compensation must reflect the importance of attracting talent.

For White, interests on both sides of the aisle can agree on the inefficiencies of a large, inflexible bureaucracy. White emphasized the distinction between governing and managing. He pointed out that schools should first and foremost be places for providing quality education. Governments should be expected to promulgate standards and issue block grants that promote flexibility. Additional services and management expectations can only be successful and effective if they are generated with locally generated influence and support. The lessons of the New Orleans RSD reflect the importance of adaptability, flexibility, and bottom-up, positive change, he concluded.


The Path Between Joe Stiglitz and Anne Kruger


Peter Henry, dean of the NYU-Stern School of Business, joined a small group of Wagner faculty and doctoral students on April 4 to present and discuss his research on how macroeconomic policy has affected the economic trajectories of Jamaica and Barbados since the former British colonies achieved their independence in the 1960s.

Although the two countries began this period with similar economies and political institutions, by the beginning of the 21st century the gap between their levels of wealth was stark. Today, per capita GDP in Barbados exceeds that of Jamaica by an amount larger than Jamaica’s entire inflation-adjusted growth since independence. While the economy of Barbados has grown steadily since 1960, Jamaica’s growth was undercut by a lost decade-and-a-half during which its economy contracted.

Henry, an economist, argued that this discrepancy can be explained by policy decisions, not institutional performance. In short, the government of Barbados implemented policies that were more favorable to business. In the 1970s, Michael Manley’s government in Kingston implemented a platform of “democratic socialism,” establishing import substitution tariffs, taxing its key mineral export, bauxite, nationalizing foreign firms, and increasing government spending. Barbados on the other hand kept inflation under control through tight fiscal policy and courted foreign investment through an “outward-looking growth strategy,” he said.

We’ve heard this story before. It is the classic neoliberal development narrative. However, Henry argued that perhaps the most important policy decision made by the Barbadian government was actually to resist the IMF’s recommendations to devalue its currency (pegged to the dollar in 1975) as inflationary pressure rose in the 1980s. Instead, the government deftly managed a complex set of negotiations with employers, unions, and workers that culminated in 1993 with a tripartite protocol on wages. Rather than unilaterally devaluing the Barbados dollar, these parties agreed to a wage cut. The Barbadian economy grew by 2.7% from 1993 to 2000.

As NYU Wagner Dean Ellen Schall put it, “Another way to tell this story is that success was dependent on a workforce made up of a high percentage of union members so that union members can represent a large group of people,” and actually consent to this major macroeconomic policy change through negotiation. Dean Henry agreed, but emphasized the role of discipline. The discipline of the unions to get workers to agree to a painful wage cut was matched by the government’s discipline in pursuing its own approach to growth, he noted. This meant avoiding Manley’s short-term profligacy in the 1970s, but also defying the Washington Consensus on the currency issue. “Discipline means different things at different times. It’s vigilant temperance, sticking with tactics aligned to your overall strategy,” he said.

This belief in moderation as a north star for macroeconomic policy was the take-away point Henry offered at the end of the seminar, in response to a question about how to apply the lessons from these two small islands to the modern economic challenges faced today by Europe, in particular the Eurozone crisis.

“You’ve got to find some middle road, what I call ‘discipline,’ between stimulus forever and austerity today. Navigate between Joe Stiglitz and Anne Kruger,” he said. That’s reasonable and sounds simple enough, but then again, the politics of an island 166 square miles in area are undoubtedly far less complex than those of a 27-state confederation with a GDP approaching $16 trillion.


The Politics of Truth, Justice and Reconciliation


How can societies achieve political reconciliation in the wake of repression, civil conflict and human rights violations? In the final event of the Conflict, Security and Development Series (March 6, 2012), Dr. Vilma “Nina” Balmaceda, Director of the Center for Scholarship and Global Engagement at Nyack College, took up this question. Her talk thoughtfully connected theory with experience, drawing important lessons about the power and the challenges of historical truth-telling.

After periods of intense political violence under repressive regimes in Argentina(1976-1983), Chile(1973-1990) and Uruguay(1973-1985), and during the Shining Path conflict in Peru(1980-2000), each nation began a path toward political reconciliation. Dr. Balmaceda emphasized three main components of this process: building a shared history, seeking truth and justice, and establishing reparations programs. All three present major challenges.

First of all, the story of a conflict often depends on who tells it. In Argentina, Peruand Uruguay, for instance, political leanings continue to predict whether people attribute human rights abuses to a pattern of systematic repression by a powerful regime or to individuals overstepping their bounds. While a truth commission report offers an in-depth explanation of what happened, this does not necessarily generate a shared history either. The findings are available online, but they are not included in school curricula, and many people are unfamiliar with the reports.

Lack of evidence presents another challenge. Victims often “disappeared” without a trace, and witnesses were terrorized. Later, when suspects are brought to trial, a rigorous burden of proof can mean perpetrators go free; a less rigorous standard can mean trials are seen as politically motivated. Due to their differential political power, low-level soldiers often face prosecution while leaders do not.

While no amount of money can make up for the atrocities that occurred, reparations can make a difference in the lives of victims’ families. Here, too, the story is important. Dr. Balmaceda emphasized that reparations should be given with the message that they are a right of those who suffered abuse and injustice, not a result of the generosity of current political leaders.

After extensive research in Argentina, Chile, PeruandUruguay, Dr. Balmaceda concluded that none of these countries has yet achieved political reconciliation. What could help advance the process? She suggests incorporating truth commission findings into public school curricula. Currently, students learn about the military victories of centuries past, but recent repression and peace-building efforts rarely make the history books. In addition, media should publicize not just incidents of violence but also communities’ efforts to remember and to heal. Telling these stories could help decrease polarization and create a shared narrative.

As Dr. Balmaceda remarked, across political lines and individual differences, the dignity and rights of human beings should be the easiest thing to agree on. Still, it seems we have a long way to go.

The Conflict, Security and Development Series at NYU Wagner will pick up these themes again next fall.


Moving Toward Greater Accountability in Humanitarian Aid


In the late 1990s, the international humanitarian community started several initiatives to improve accountability to international refugees and other beneficiaries of humanitarian aid.

How’s it going?

Dr. Mark Foran ( M.D., M.P.H. ), an assistant professor in the Department of Emergency Medicine at the NYU School of Medicine, visited NYU Wagner to speak to that question — and how he and others have been moving it along with research.

He was the guest presenter in this second to last installment for the semester of “The Conflict, Security, and Development Series.” This series at NYU Wagner has attracted top-notch, cutting-edge researchers, policy makers, and practitioners who’ve discussed creative and effective approaches to helping refugees in conflict and post conflict arenas. The final installment will be Tuesday, March 6 with Dr. Vilma Balmaceda. The series will pick up again come the fall.

The Feb. 28 forum with Dr. Foran provided 40-plus listeners with a chance to appreciate the complexity and nuances involved in designing a research-based process by which the quality of humanitarian relief — from the standpoint of the recipients, principally – can be assessed and, where necessary, improved.

Dr. Foran’s research seeks to move the humanitarian aid community toward accountability standards, performance indicators, and data gathering procedures around NGO’s common aims. He is developing them for the Humanitarian Accountability Partnership, a voluntary association of many of these organizations, and many large and influential ones.

What’s ultimately needed, he believes, are methods for surveying recipients of humanitarian assistance about their sense of security, sense of hope for the future, empowerment and understanding of who has helped them and whom they can turn to. It’s not enough, he said, for evaluators to conduct site visits at NGO offices abroad and ask questions of staffers. They must go into the field and survey refugees themselves. This, he said, may be the only truly solid way to assess an NGO’s impact beyond fundamental first questions of refugee mortality , morbidity, and nutrition.

In his more hopeful moments, no doubt, Dr. Foran envisions the creation of an accountability index for humanitarian relief organizations , one that could be easily read by world leaders and the general public, based in large part on such carefully designed surveys of the people the NGO’s seek to help. The funding will materialize if and when more NGO’s realize the value – to them and their beneficiaries – of devoting more than “00.1percent” of their annual budget to accountability programs.


WSA Weekly Digest: Monday, December 12 – Sunday, December 18, 2011


WSA Weekly Digest: Monday, December 12 – Sunday, December 18, 2011

Monday, December 12, 2011

Title: Roundtable Discussion on Long-Term Liabilities & Healthcare
Time: 8 a.m. – 10:30 a.m.
Sponsors: The Fund for Public Advocacy, in partnership with the Office of the New York City Public Advocate, NYU Wagner School of Public Service and the Wagner Economics and Finance Association (WEFA)
Location: The Puck Building, Rudin Family Forum
RSVP: http://wagner.nyu.edu/events

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Title: Performance Management Professionals Colloquium
Time: 9 a.m. -10:30 a.m.
Sponsor: Wagner’s Alumni in Performance Measurement & Management Affinity Group
Location: The Puck Building, Mulberry Conference Room
RVSP: http://wagner.nyu.edu/events/management-12-13-2011

Wednesday, December 14, 2011
No events listed.

Thursday December 15, 2011

Title: Doctoral Holiday Reception
Time: 5:30 p.m. – 6:30 p.m.
Location: The Puck Building, Rice Conference Room / Newman Reception Area
RVSP: http://wagner.nyu.edu/events/doctoral-12-15-2011

Friday, December 16, 2011

Title: Wagner Student Association Holiday Party
Time: 5:30 p.m. – 9 p.m.
Sponsor: Wagner Student Association
Location: Housing Works, 126 Crosby off Houston and parallel to Lafayette http://g.co/maps/j3bep
RSVP: http://wagner.nyu.edu/events/wsa-12-16-2011

Saturday, December 17, 2011
No events listed.

Sunday, December 18, 2011
No events listed.


WSA Weekly Digest: Monday, December 5 – Sunday, December 11, 2011


WSA Weekly Digest: Monday, December 5 – Sunday, December 11, 2011

Monday, December 5, 2011

Title: Vital Voices Guest Lecture Series: A Conversation with Beth Brooke
Time: 12:30 p.m. – 2 p.m.
Sponsor: Vital Voices/ NYU Wagner course on women’s rights
Location: The Puck Building, Rudin Family Forum
RSVP: http://wagner.nyu.edu/events

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Title: Reboot Information Session
Time: 12 p.m. – 1 p.m.
Sponsor: Wagner OCS
Location: The Puck Building, Mulberry Conference Room
RVSP: on the Career Directory

Title: Jewish Values, Jewish Interests: Negotiating the Tension
Time: 5 p.m. – 7 p.m.
Sponsors: Jewish Communal Service Association of North America and the Berman Jewish Policy Archive @ NYU Wagner
Location: NYU Vanderbilt Hall, 40 Washington Square South, Room 218
RSVP: http://wagner.nyu.edu/events

Title: East Africa Famine: Humanitarian Response and Benefit Dinner
Time: 5 p.m. – 6:30 p.m.
Sponsors: International Public Service Association and Wagner Student Alliance For Africa
Location: The Puck Building, Rudin Family Forum
RSVP: http://wagner.nyu.edu/events

Title: Thinking of Working in Philanthropy? Career Reflections from Gara Lamarche
Time: 6:30 p.m. – 8 p.m.
Sponsors: Wagner’s Alumni in Philanthropy Affinity Group
Location: The Puck Building, Rice Conference Room
RSVP: http://wagner.nyu.edu/events

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Title: Race and Savings with Darrick Hamilton and Caitlyn Brazill: Race and the Wealth Gap Series, Part 2
Time: 5:30 p.m. – 7 p.m.
Sponsors: Black Student Alliance, the Asian Pacific American Student Alliance, and the Alliance of Latin American Students
Location: The Puck Building, Rudin Family Forum
RSVP: http://wagner.nyu.edu/events/bsa-12-07-2011

Thursday December 8, 2011

Title: Moving Forward, Getting to Zero: the AIDS Crisis after 30 Years
Time: 5 p.m. – 7 p.m.
Sponsor: Stonewall Policy Alliance
Location: The Puck Building, Rudin Family Forum
RSVP: http://wagner.nyu.edu/events

Title: Engage2012 Opening Event
Time: 6 p.m. -8 p.m.
Sponsor: The Women of Color Policy Network
Location: The Puck Building, Rudin Family Forum
RSVP: The Kimmel Center, Rosenthal Pavilion, 60 Washington Square South
Title: Wagner Alumni Happy Hour
Time: 6 p.m. – 7:30 p.m.
Sponsor: Wagner Alumni
Location: Sláinte
RSVP: http://wagner.nyu.edu/events/alumni-12-08-2011

Title: SCJR Brown Bag: Stop, Question & Frisk
Time: 6:30 p.m. – 7:30 p.m.
Sponsor: Students for Criminal Justice Reform (SCJR)
Location: The Puck Building, Jersey Conference Room
RSVP: http://wagner.nyu.edu/events

Title: Bike Share Open House
Date: Thursday, December 8, 2011
Time: 6:30 p.m. – 8:30 p.m.
Sponsors: Urban Planning Student Association and the Wagner Transportation Association
Location: The Center for Architecture, 536 LaGuardia Place
RSVP: n/a

Title: Fundraising Book Club Meeting – Alumni in Fundraising & Development Affinity Group
Time: 6:30 p.m. – 8 p.m.
Sponsors: Alumni in Fundraising and Development Affinity Group
Location: The Puck Building, Humayan Conference Room
RSVP: http://wagner.nyu.edu/events/community-12-08-2011

Title: Bridge End of Year Happy Hour
Time: 8 p.m.
Sponsors: Bridge: Students for Social Innovation
Location: Half Pint, 76 West 3rd St.
RSVP: n/a

Title: Guest Lecture with Carlos Leite: Sao Paulo Sustainability Indicators: From Formal to Informal Territories”
Date: Thursday, December 8, 2011
Time: 9 p.m. – 10 p.m.
Sponsor: Urban Planning Student Association
Location: The Mulberry Conference Room, the Puck Building
RSVP: http://wagner.nyu.edu/events

Friday, December 9, 2011

Title: SNEAC Peek: Design with the other 90 Percent: Cities at the United Nations
Time: 2 p.m.
Sponsors: SNEAC (Student Network Exploring Arts and Culture) and IPSA (International Public Service Association)
Location: 3 United Nations Plaza (on 1st Avenue between 45th and 46th Street)
RSVP: Required. Student ticket price is $11. https://sites.google.com/a/nyu.edu/sneac/news-and-events/sneacpeekother90percent

Title: WSAFA: Film Screening of Venus Noire
Time: 5 p.m. – 8:30 p.m.
Sponsors: SNEAC (Student Network Exploring Arts and Culture) and The Wagner Women’s Caucus
Location: The Puck Building, Rudin Family Forum
RSVP: http://wagner.nyu.edu/events

Title: Happy Hour
Time: 5 p.m. – 8 p.m.
Sponsors: Students for Criminal Justice Reform (SCJR)
Location: Sláinte
RSVP: n/a

Saturday, December 10, 2011
No events listed.

Sunday, December 11, 2011
No events listed.


WSA Weekly Digest: Monday, November 28 – Sunday, December 4, 2011


WSA Weekly Digest: Monday, November 28 – Sunday, December 4, 2011

Monday, November 28, 2011

Title: Vital Voices Guest Lecture Series: A Talk about Trafficking with E. Benjamin Skinner, Author of A Crime So Monstrous: Face to Face with Modern-Day Slavery
Time: 12:30 p.m. – 2 p.m.
Sponsors: NYU Wagner / Vital Voices course on women’s rights
Location: The Puck Building, Rudin Family Forum
RSVP: http://wagner.nyu.edu/events

Title: SNEAC Peek at Park Avenue Armory: Shen Wei Dance Arts
Time: 1 p.m. – 3 p.m.
Sponsor: SNEAC (Student Network Exploring Arts & Culture)
Location: Park Avenue Armory, 643 Park Avenue
RSVP: https://sites.google.com/a/nyu.edu/sneac/news-and-events/sneacpeekshenweidancearts

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Title: Global Perspectives of Road Safety: A conversation with public health expert Dr. Kelly J. Henning, Director of Public Health Programs for Bloomberg Philanthropies
Time: 8:30 a.m. – 10 a.m.
Sponsors: NYU’s Rudin Center and the Wagner Alumni in Philanthropy Affinity group
Location: The Puck Building, Rudin Family Forum
RSVP: http://wagner.nyu.edu/events

Title: National Park Service Information Session
Time: 12 p.m. – 1 p.m.
Sponsor: Wagner OCS
Location: The Puck Building, Mulberry Conference Room
RVSP: on the Career Directory

Title: International Public Service Association (IPSA) General Meeting
Time: 5:30 p.m. – 6:30 p.m.
Sponsor: International Public Service Association (IPSA)
Location: The Puck Building, Rice Conference Room
RSVP: http://wagner.nyu.edu/events

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Title: Shifting School Lunch Policies
Time: 6 p.m. – 7:30 p.m.
Sponsors: Wagner Food Policy Alliance (WFPA) and Wagner Education Policy Studies Association (WEPSA)
Location: The Puck Building, Rudin Family Forum
RSVP: http://wagner.nyu.edu/events/wepsa-11-30-2011

Title: Opening Reception for “how ounces become tons” at the Gallery Space at Wagner
Time: 6 p.m. – 8 p.m.
Sponsors: NYU Wagner and NYU Steinhardt
Location: The Puck Building, Rice Conference Room / Newman Reception Area
RSVP: http://wagner.nyu.edu/events

Thursday, December 1, 2011
No events listed.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Title: NGO, Nonprofit, & Government Career Forum
Time: 11:30 a.m. – 3 p.m.
Sponsors: Wagner OCS
Location: George Washington University, Washington DC
RVSP: http://www.nyu.edu/careerdevelopment/employers/careerforum_emp_flyer.php

Title: NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital Information Session
Time: 12 p.m. – 1 p.m.
Sponsors: Wagner OCS
Location: The Puck Building, Rice Conference Room
RVSP: on the Career Directory

Title: Spotlight on Burma: Screenings of “Happy World” and “From Burma to New York” and discussion
Time: 5:30 p.m. – 7:30 p.m.
Sponsors: Asian Pacific American Students Alliance (APASA) and International Public Service Association (IPSA)
Location: The Puck Building, Mulberry Conference Room
RSVP: http://wagner.nyu.edu/events/apasa-12-02-2011

Title: WHN: Health Services Management Roundtable
Time: 3 p.m. – 4 p.m.
Sponsor: Wagner Health Network (WHN)
Location: The Puck Building, Mulberry Conference Room
RSVP: http://wagner.nyu.edu/events

Title: Wagner Student Association Happy Hour
Time: 5 p.m. – 8 p.m.
Sponsor: Wagner Health Network (WHN)
Location: Sláinte
RSVP: n/a

Saturday, December 3, 2011
No events listed.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Title: FREE NYC Transit Museum Guided Tour
Time: 11 a.m.
Sponsor: Wagner Transportation Association (WTA)
Location: Museum Entrance @ corner of Boerum Place & Schermerhorn Street in Brooklyn Heights
RSVP: safranjs@nyu.edu


Students Question Media’s Role in Humanitarian Crises


 

Written by Cora Weissbourd

JOURNALISTIC integrity clashed with student idealism at NYU Wagner the other night (Sept. 22, 2011).

The panel discussion, “Humanitarian Emergencies: The Role of the Media,” evolved into a spirited debate around responsibility, technology, and reporting.

Many audience questions focused on how to attract media attention to the “right” causes, and avoiding exploiting crisis victims. For some of the experts on the panel, however, these questions missed the point:

Media outlets have no moral obligation to cover famines instead of Kim Kardashian’s wedding, explained panel moderator Allan Murray. The role of the media is not to “make people eat their vegetables,” he said.

Panelist Cath Turner detailed why some emergencies receive more attention than others: it’s about what people will watch. While viewers are weary of starving children in East Africa, an exploding nuclear reactor in Japan has an appealing “novelty factor.”

As someone who listened to the commentators’ back-and-forth, I agree that the role of the media is not to solve humanitarian emergencies. The value of journalism lies in truth-seeking, in finding stories and reporting facts. I do, however, take issue with the discussion event’s definition of value. To define a valuable story as a story that interests audiences ignores an obvious paradox: audiences learn what is newsworthy and valuable from the media.

In an era of citizen journalism, the media has taken on a new role that further highlights this question of value. Increasingly, non-journalists use technology and the internet to report stories. For the Sept. 22 panel, this raised alarming issues of information overload and authenticity. Professional journalists now must play the role of editor and gatekeeper. They must ask: What is real? What is worth seeing?

Sam Gregory, the director of WITNESS’s programs, offered a bridge between the media representatives and the student idealists. WITNESS’ mission is to use video to open the eyes of the world to human rights violations. Gregory offered suggestions for students interested in combining journalism and activism. For the curious, their tool kits are available here: http://www.witness.org/training/resources.


Join a live stream of a talk with Ambassador Maen Rashid Areikat, Chief PLO Representative to the U.S.


Maen Areikat.jpg

Tune into the Public Service Today blog on Wednesday, March 2 at 12:15 pm for a special live stream of “The Palestinians and the American Jewish Community: A Challenging Relationship,” an invitation-only talk with Ambassador Maen Rashid Areikat, chief PLO representative to the United States.

Learn more about Ambassador Areikat and this remarkable event.

We encourage you view the event here and leave your comment on the Public Service Today blog. 

(Please note: Ustream shows about 30 seconds of advertising before
beginning to stream the event, so please allow time for that. After that, it is
possible to close the ad that appears along the bottom of the screen).

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