Fifteen-year-old Jonathan Minor was shocked when he saw his picture on the front page of the Sept. 16 Clarion-Ledger. "I thought I was a superstar. Then I read the caption," Minor said. The caption read: "Algebra Project teacher Peggy Quinn helps Jonathan Minor, 15, with an assignment at Lanier High School, one of 33 schools across the state performing at the lowest level, according to recently released state testing results." The large headline overhead was worse: "Students blame themselves." And the sub-head: "Parents, kids agree teachers not to blame for poor Level 1 rating."
The wrinkle: Minor, whom reporter Cathy Hayden did not interview for her "blame" story, passed the tests. "They should have quoted me," Minor said. His friend, Sharrod Brown, 15, also passed the tests. He's angry, too. "They put his picture up there for no reason. They messed up on the headline. Why couldn't it be: 'Students Working Not to be Level I School'?" He added, "People judge us on what they hear instead of what they see. They only recognize us for our basketball team."
The students say the story dumps on Lanier one more time, as local media often do, ignoring the positives and giving their negatives front-page play. In fact, teacher Quinn points out, 54 percent of Lanier students passed the Algebra I exam, over the 33 percent the year before. (This is mentioned later in the story, and not on the front page.) But under President Bush's "No Child Left Behind" standards, this wasn't enough to shed the "failing" label. The young people who did pass the math test get lumped in with the 46 percent that didn't—both by NCLB and local media.
About 30 10th-graders, along with their teachers (including civil-rights hero Bob Moses, who runs the Algebra Project), gathered to vent about how the story made them look to the outside world. "People think we're a bad school; they judge us by the neighborhood around us," said Altus Collins, 15. "It brings our self-esteem down," Minor added.
Such negative reporting about young people, especially kids of color, is a national problem, feeding a fear of youth, leading to more punitive discipline and criminal policies that do not help children, says Vincent Schiraldi, director of the Justice Policy Institute in Washington that researches juvenile-justice issues. The media too often focus on negative coverage of youth, Schiraldi said in "Best Practices for Newspaper Journalists," a handbook published by the Freedom Forum. As a result, adults have an irrational fear of young people, fueled by media that don't question rhetoric about dangerous or "failing" schools. Schiraldi says that the public's fear of youth has steadily risen, even as youth crime has dropped.
The "Best Practices" guide advises journalists to re-focus efforts on more positive coverage of their communities; a study of newspaper readers found that people were more concerned about "negative" bias than "liberal" bias. It shared former Washington Post ombudsman Geneva Overholser's advice: "Don't exaggerate problems and pathologies. Behave as a citizen and a journalist. Report, write and edit as if you care about where you live."
Student Xavier Johnson, 15, also passed the tests—and he was interviewed by Harden. "I didn't say we blamed ourselves; I told her I felt that the teachers had more of a part," said the young man who wants to be an attorney. He wasn't quoted in the article.
For his part, Minor—an aspiring filmmaker—said it's been hard to face his family and friends. He saw a pile of Clarion-Ledgers in a service station and was mortified. "I've never seen so many pictures of myself in my life." His mother cut his picture out of the article and laminated it.
The students, though, are trying hard to turn the experience and their anger into a positive. "We gotta do better so that we get recognized," Brown said.
After months of stoking crime and race hysteria (and thereby helping push the tax base beyond the city limits), Gannett International is now going to draw on nine months of hard-hitting reporting to tell us what's wrong with us here in the city. On Sunday, Oct. 5, the Clarion-Ledger debuts its "Changing Face of Jackson" series, promising "Race, Politics, Problems, Possibilities." Apparently, the paper is going to explain to us "the high cost of demographic shifts and the reasons behind it."
This is different. When executive editor Ronnie Agnew came on board last October, he sat down with Sid Salter for a "Sunday Morning" interview. "We waste too much energy, too much time, too many dollars, talking about race when no one, not a single person, has ever shown me why it should matter in the Mississippi of 2002," Agnew said. Perhaps he changed his mind?