HE SAYS, SHE SAYS: HOW CALIFORNIA’S MAJOR PAPERS HAVE COVERED PROP. 227, by Manisha Aryal

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Proposition 227 opponents say software millionaire Ron Unz’s initiative is not about bilingual education.

He insists it is.

They say kids need to learn math and science in their native language until they learn English.

He says if you immerse kids in English, they’ll be fluent in 180 days.

They say this is a sink-or-swim approach; kids will drown.

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He says this is the path to the American dream.

They say Proposition 227 is racist–just like Propositions 187 and 209 before it.

He says only five percent of immigrant kids learn English each year; bilingual education has failed.

They say only one-third of California’s limited-English children are in a bilingual class; Unz’s figures prove nothing.

This is what coverage of Proposition 227–a June ballot initiative that would eliminate bilingual education in California classrooms–boils down to in the state’s opinion-leading dailies. In an analysis of initiative-related stories appearing in the San Francisco Chronicle, Sacramento Bee, and Los Angeles Times over a three-month period, MediaFile found that he said-she said reporting dominated. There was little or no discussion of actual bilingual programs, how the initiative’s mandated overhaul might affect students, and whether or not sources’ statements were backed up by facts.

The reporters we spoke with defend their stories as balanced and objective. They say they’ve done their job–presented both sides of the story so that readers can judge for themselves. But activists who have followed the coverage of the initiative argue that simply juxtaposing statements from the opposing campaigns doesn’t give voters the information they need to make an informed decision. Such stories, they say, barely scrape the surface of this hotly contested educational issue.

Campaign story or education story?

“Reporters are approaching this as a 1998 campaign story,” says Makani Themba, executive director of Praxis Project, a nonprofit organization that trains community groups in media advocacy. “They are not treating this as an education story. They seem to have forgotten that this issue will affect the lives of hundreds of thousands of children for years to come.”

MediaFile‘s study supports Themba’s perception. Of the 33 news and feature stories published in the three papers between November 1, 1997 and January 31, 1998, two-thirds did not even define bilingual education–a serious omission given the variety of programs operating in the state and the fact that the initiative would eliminate all of them. And while the papers seem to have recognized the initiative as the story of the season and put education reporters on its trail, we did not find a single story about failed or successful educational programs–bilingual, English immersion, or other–in any of the three papers.

Chronicle education reporter Nanette Asimov says the omission at her paper was not deliberate–she was filling in for an editor during the period of MediaFile‘s study and did not have an opportunity to write an education-focused story. The Chronicle‘s coverage did improve when Asimov was freed from her editing duties. In a front-page story that ran March 17, Asimov devoted 1307 words to defining bilingual education as it exists in California today–the kind of guide readers need to understand the programs.

But even at the Sacramento Bee, where an education reporter was working on the topic, half of the 12 articles published during the study period were campaign-progress stories. The other stories were about state legislators’ proposals to reform bilingual education, Orange County’s decision to opt-out of offering bilingual ed, a profile of Ron Unz, a debate on Proposition 227, and an explanation of other states’ approaches to offering bilingual education. Beat reporter Janine DeFao says a classroom visit is on the Bee’s agenda.

Similarly, of the 14 stories in the L.A. Times during the study period, none were program focused. Five of the stories followed the progress of the Proposition 227 campaign–signatures collected, endorsements received, etc. The other nine stories included reports on Governor Wilson’s and Gubernatorial candidate Al Checchi’s positions on the initiative, state leglislators’ bilingual education proposals, Orange County’s opt-out, and two profiles–one in support of and one against Proposition 227. Times education reporter Nick Anderson declined to discuss his articles with MediaFile.

What is sheltered English immersion?

Proposition 227 is a campaign story, but more importantly it’s about a transformation in the education of immigrant children that could have a long-term impact on the fortunes of the entire state. Santa Ana first-grade teacher Gloria Matta Tuchman and maverick software entrepreneur Ron Unz propose replacing a range of programs collectively known as bilingual education with a single “sheltered English immersion program” lasting no longer than one school year–180 days. Kids will be expected to be fluent in English after that and will move on to regular classes.

A number of questions immediately come to mind: What does an immersion class look like? What other schools systems are using immersion programs and for which kids? What are the success rates for the immersion approach versus various types of bilingual education? During the study period, not a single story addressed these issues. And just as terms such as “preferences” and “quotas” became part of the vocabulary of stories on Proposition 209, reporting on Proposition 227 seems to parrot the language of the initiative and lets “immersion” go undefined.

Leonard Bernstein, state editor at the Times, was surprised when he was told that his paper had not explained either bilingual education or the meaning of immersion. He agreed that the reporter could have pressed the campaign to clarify. Bernstein said that the Times would start carrying more in-depth stories on bilingual education. Only during the last few weeks leading up to the election do the readers start paying attention to stories on initiatives, he said.

The Chronicle‘s Asimov says she has asked Unz and the Prop. 227 campaign office for the name of a school where kids are taught using immersion. “They have not been able to give me names of any schools in Northern California,” she said. However, Asimov has not pointed this out in any of her stories either.

We asked Unz ourselves where we could see immersion in action and got this evasive answer: “Oh, down there and here and there. Actually it is used a lot in California, though usually not under this name. A lot of schools do it but they don’t call it immersion because it is illegal.” This statement is untrue–immersion is not illegal in California–but sometimes untrue statements or biased language slip into print when reporters are working on deadline and don’t have time for fact-checking.

Hunter Cutting, associate director of We Interrupt This Message, an organization that trains advocates to improve media coverage of their causes, says stating untruths has been used by the right as a media strategy. He says that during the Proposition 209 campaign, “[Proposition 209 supporters] repeated the term racial preferences over and over like a mantra until the press stopped using the term affirmative action and started using racial preferences to describe equal opportunity programs. And now we see the same pattern of repeating a lie often enough until it’s accepted as a given. The right keeps saying that bilingual education doesn’t work–over and over and over.”

Sheri Annis, a spokeswoman for the Proposition 227 campaign, cites Taft Elementary School in Orange County, where Matta Tuchman teaches, as a school where immersion is being used with amazing success. But, Annis told MediaFile, “We don’t encourage reporters [to visit] as we don’t want the classes to get disrupted.”

Anderson of the Los Angeles Times did write a profile of 55-year-old Matta Tuchman six months before the study period (LAT, 8/13/97) that discussed the pro-227 teacher’s methods:

“She teaches them through ‘sheltered immersion,’ meaning that the students are given visual or other aids to help with English words they don’t know–for instance, pictures of coins in a math lesson or pictures of mountains in a geography lesson.”

Obviously, this is a partial picture of Matta Tuchman’s classroom. The Times story does not talk about how often visual cues are used or how the children in her class respond. Educators who oppose eliminating bilingual education say they don’t know what the “sheltered English immersion” program required by the initiative entails.

MediaFile pressed Unz on his vision of an immersion classroom. “It is very simple,” he says. “Our initiative would establish a system of intensive, short-term immersion classes. And that is a very long name for a very simple idea. It means you take little children who are just starting school, who don’t know English, and put them in a class and teach them English. That is pretty much what it is.” Given that bilingual teachers believe they are already teaching kids English, it’s understandable that this answer strikes them as unenlightening.

Lies, Damn Lies, and Statistics

Matta Tuchman, Unz, and the pro-227 campaign also throw around a lot of statistics that are equally sketchy. A particular favorite is the claim that bilingual education has a 95 percent failure rate. Unz often says that annually, only five percent of students classified as limited-English speakers are reclassified as proficient in English. MediaFile found that statistic in two of the 14 stories that ran in the Times during the study period. One of those stories includes a counter-quote challenging the statistic and the other refers to the statistic as “somewhat misleading” rather than inaccurate–which is what it is.

The five-percent statistic is based on the number of all limited-English students (1.4 million) that the state Department of Education reclassifies as English proficient each year. Only three out of 10 of those kids receive any kind of bilingual instruction, but the state does not keep records on the number of students in bilingual classrooms who achieve English proficiency.

The Proposition 227 campaign also vastly overstates the success of its preferred teaching method. Unz told MediaFile that at Taft Elementary, “By the end of first grade, the kids are all reading and writing and speak English perfectly well.”

In another Times story (8/8/97), Anderson cites a much lower success rate, and makes a pointed comparison:

“Matta Tuchman’s school, Taft Elementary in Santa Ana, uses English-immersion classes. Its English conversion rate is about 17%. That is more than double the state average. But using the logic of the ‘English for the Children’ campaign, it could be argued that Taft–the school that Matta Tuchman holds up as a model–has an 83% failure rate.”

Unfortunately, Anderson again uses the five-percent figure uncritically and loses the opportunity to also point out that since the state doesn’t track the success of bilingual programs as a whole, let alone individually, it is impossible to compare one program to another.

Studies on bilingual education might help fill the statistics gap, but DeFao of the Bee says she can’t use them. “The whole issue is so politicized,” she says. “The Unz side has been so successful in labeling the studies [as biased] that it is hard to write about any of them.” MediaFile found that four stories in the study sample included Unz’s claim that bilingual education studies are biased. Three of the stories let the claim go unchallenged, and one story included a counter-quote. None of the stories analyzed the studies themselves.

Unz dismisses studies on bilingual education–almost all of which negate his claims–as partisan research carried out by “the industry of bilingual education, those people who are either getting money from it or really believe in it.”

Without a trace of irony, Unz says that reporters are very gullible about statistics. “If a head of bilingual education in a given school district says it works they accept it at face value.”

That’s not Patricia Gandara’s experience. Gandara, a professor at UC Davis, who has studied bilingual education for 20 plus years, says she wishes reporters would be as hard on the campaign as they are on her. “They come and ask me intelligent questions–like how I did my analysis and if there is a meta-analysis. But they don’t seem to ask Unz if he can back up his information.” Gandara’s research supports programs that teach limited-English speakers math and science in their native language while teaching them English; Unz’s initiative would put a halt to math and science for a year.

The Bigger Picture

Reporters seem to not have questioned Unz’s motives. How does a high-tech entrepreneur with an undergraduate degree in physics and no experience in education–bilingual or otherwise–suddenly become an activist on how immigrant children are being taught English?

Unz says his “inspiration” was a 1996 boycott of a Los Angeles elementary school by a group of Latino parents. But Unz began talking about bilingual education well before that incident–a point made in only one story in our study. In the Sacramento Bee (1/19/98), Phil Garcia writes: “Four years ago, during his failed bid against Gov. Pete Wilson for the Republican gubernatorial nomination, the Silicon Valley software entrepreneur already had bilingual education in his cross hairs. ‘The poison brew of bilingual education, multiculturalism, and ethnic separatism policies . . . threatens to destroy the tradition of American assimilation,’ he said at the time. ”

The possibility that the initiative is motivated by Unz’s political aspirations and ideological commitments as much as or more than concern for immigrant children goes unexplored.

In an oblique recognition of this subtext, Asimov of the Chronicle says that as soon as the initiative got a number, her paper stopped calling it “the Unz Initiative” or the “English for Children” initiative. “There is a certain advertising quality to it,” she says. “And we are not out to give them publicity.” And the Chronicle, unlike the Times and the Bee, also has not hesitated to call Proposition 227 an anti-bilingual education initiative.

Themba of the Praxis Project says that California papers have missed altogether the wider political underpinnings of initiatives such as Props. 187, 209, and 227. She says the propositions are all about denying immigrants and people of color education, which is the typical route up the ladder of social and economic advancement. Other advocates interviewed by MediaFile share the view that the story of Prop 227 is bigger than the campaign, and even bigger than bilingual education. They mentioned White fear of the new California demographics in which people of color are the majority. Advocates also pointed to Propositions 187, 209, and 227 as “wedge issues” that divide potential political allies along race lines.

The Battle of the Sound Bites

In the absence of relevant statistics or what they consider valid studies, reporters have often made do with opinion. MediaFile‘s analysis showed that the Unz campaign was quoted twice as much as the campaign against the initiative. There was only one student quoted in any of the 33 stories, and politicians were quoted as many times as teachers and twice as much as bilingual education experts.

Still, in an era when campaigns are won or lost not on the strength of policy ideas but on the effectiveness of public relations, the No-on-227 campaign has to share the blame for not getting its message across.

While Unz started meeting with newspaper editorial boards long before the initiative got a number, the opposition campaign has just begun to organize. Unz returns phone calls promptly, is great with sound bites, and is personally leading the crusade. Bilingual education advocates, on the other hand, are a diverse bunch with a profusion of messages. Unlike the pro-227 camp, they do not have much money and are a loose coalition with no identifiable leader.

Katie Woodruff of the Berkeley Media Studies Group recently did an analysis of the same three papers MediaFile studied for the month of January. After reading the stories once she came away feeling that most people wanted to get rid of bilingual education. “When I did my detailed analysis,” she says, “I found that there were actually a lot more articles in support of bilingual education.”

The problem, Woodruff says, is that “there was a cacophony of voices. And the message was getting diluted.” The opponents of bilingual education, she says, repeat the same points–poorly supported though they may be–over and over again. “I found eight messages from the supporters of bilingual education; the opponents had but one message, ‘Children should be allowed to study English.'”

Until recently, reaching Proposition 227’s opponents has not been an easy task. “You call them and you have to go through five phones before you reach someone deep in a university somewhere,” says Asimov. “You have lost a lot of time trying to track someone down and sometimes you wonder what their commitment to the cause is.”

The No on 227 campaign has hired a San Francisco public relations firm, Baca Thier and Associates, to streamline the messages. But so far, they still come out fragmented.

Weigh this soundbite from the pro-227 campaign: “If you put kids in an immersion class, they will learn English” against the soundbite from the anti-227 campaign: “The Unz Initiative limits English-language instruction to 180 days, it says one size fits all, threatens lawsuits against teachers and puts aside just 50 million for any programs, and handcuffs teachers and limits children.”

Which one is clearer?

Manisha Aryal is a U.C. Berkeley journalism graduate student and Media Alliance staff person.

Source: Media File, Volume 17 #3, May-Jun 1998

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