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Kansas news reporting questioned

From Kansas Policy Institute.

Media should be a neutral reporter of facts

By Dave Trabert

“An enlightened citizenry is indispensable for the proper functioning of a republic.” — Thomas Jefferson

I wonder what Mr. Jefferson would say about the state of today’s media. Television, cable, print and internet media routinely ignore basic journalistic principles and openly choose sides, often ignoring the facts and perpetuating falsehoods to convince citizens that their view is the right one. In some cases, it’s done in support of conservative causes; most often, it’s in support of “progressive” ideals that strip citizens of their personal freedom. It’s bad enough when facts are ignored in editorials but ignoring facts and choosing sides in news stories is tantamount to journalistic malpractice.

Local media gave us two examples of this behavior recently.  A November 22 Kansas City Star report said, “Kansas still had fewer jobs in October 2013 than it did in December 2012, the month before the Brownback tax cuts took effect.” The reporter when on to say, “Put another way: Kansas has actually lost 3,311 jobs since the Brownback tax cuts took effect.”

This is a great example of media looking for ways to inject their support or opposition of policy into news stories while quite deliberately ignoring pertinent facts. The clear purpose in that KC Star story was to show disdain for tax reform and the facts were not allowed to detract from that purpose.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics employment data quoted by the reporter (although certainly not disclosed) was Labor Force Employment, which comes from the Current Population Survey (CPS) and represents employed persons by place of residence. The more commonly-used BLS report of non-farm employment is estimated based on the Current Employment Statistics (CES) survey of business establishments, and represents a count of jobs by place of work.

The CPS data chosen by the KC Star is based on where people live, not where they work. There is no way of knowing to what extent the job losses reported in the CPS data are attributable to people who live in Kansas but work in Missouri, Nebraska, Colorado or Oklahoma. Data from the CES survey of businesses, however, avoids that issue because it is based on where people work.

And surprise! This data shows just the opposite of the story told by the KC Star.

Job growth is occurring in Kansas but that inconvenient truth gets in the way of the Star’s opposition to tax reform, so they spin a tale that suits their purpose and pass it off as “news.”

The Topeka-Capital Journal provided another example of journalistic malfeasance on November 24 in a one-sided recitation of school districts’ funding complaints. Not unlike the piece in the Star, its political purpose comes through loud and clear.

“When Gov. Sam Brownback took office, schools like this one were already reeling. The recession had brought what were likely the largest cuts to their operating budgets in state history. But once the recession faded, those funds didn’t rebound as some had hoped. Meanwhile, the governor cut income taxes — reductions meant to bolster the economy.”

That reads like an ad for a made-for-TV fictional movie, with the emphasis on fiction. Not a shred of funding facts were provided, which would of course expose that the claims are crafted to meet the political purpose.

Let’s look at the facts (all of which are readily available from the Kansas Department of Education). First of all, we’ll look at actual spending instead of the misleading reference to “budget.” Individuals and businesses think of “budget cuts” as spending reductions but when government says their budget was cut, it most often means that their plan to spend more was partly stymied.

I’ll make an assumption here that “operating” means current operating costs and excludes capital outlay and debt service (it wasn’t defined in the CJ story).

There was a 2.3 percent reduction in total operating expenditures in 2010, with per-pupil operating spending dipping by 3.5 percent. Portraying reaction to this paltry decline as “reeling” (or allowing school districts to do so) is hardly justifiable. Those small declines in total and per-pupil spending came on the heels of very large spending increases between 2005 and 2009 of 35 percent and 32 percent, respectively. (FYI, in case anyone tries to claim that schools suffered because state funding declined dramatically in 2010, remind them that nearly all of that money was replaced by legislators with federal stimulus money; the funding just temporarily shifted.)

Calling the 2010 minor spending dip the largest cut in state history makes it sound monumental and only feeds the political hype. In reality, 2010 was the only spending reduction that occurred since 1990, which is as far back as KSDE can cite; they tell us that prior years’ data has been archived and isn’t readily available. Details needed to identify operating spending in the KSDE online database only go back to 2004 (KPI has tracked it since 2005) but we do know that total spending did not decline between 1990 and 2010.

Allowing districts to claim they were “reeling” and quoting a legislator as saying districts are in “survival mode” deliberately ignores well-known facts that counter the veracity of those claims. For example, districts haven’t even spent all of the tax money received since 2005; about $420 million was used to increase operating cash reserves. Districts are also wasting a lot of money with inefficient operations.  Every single Legislative Post Audit study on school efficiency has found that schools could operate much more efficiently. If media is going to print “sky-is-falling” claims by school districts and those who support their institutional desires, they have a journalistic obligation to also publish facts that call such claims into question.

The article also perpetuates the myth that Base State Aid Per Pupil (BSAPP) is all districts receive to operate schools. The story allows two legislators and others to at least imply that BSAPP is the sole funding source and that the Legislature is deliberately underfunding schools despite a large body of evidence to the contrary.

The story cites no other per-pupil amount and fails to disclose that BSAPP is only about 30 percent of total funding provided by taxpayers. For the record, KSDE reports that per-pupil support of public education set a new record last year at $12,781 and is expected to hit $12,885 this year. District administrators know (and we’ve certainly informed media quite often) that they receive a lot more money than BSAPP to fund general operations. Local Option Budget (LOB) funds, which are provided through legislative authority, have increased 71% between 2005 and 2013, going from $341.7 million to $585.3 million.

Contrary to the claim made by one legislator quoted in the story, BSAPP was not put into statute as what the Legislature deemed to be “… the appropriate number to fund our schools.”  The Legislature made no such declaration. The Legislature increased funding based on a court order and under threat of having the State Supreme Court close schools. But the facts don’t fit the story that some people want to perpetuate, so rhetoric is substituted to fulfill a political purpose.

Kansas Policy Institute and other have published the facts surrounding school funding cases, including a full legal analysis of Montoy vs. State of Kansas.  We most recently published “Student-Focused Funding Solutions for Public Education,” which again cites many facts that explain why every court case on school funding is based on deliberately-inflated figures. Despite all the rhetoric, supposition and claims to the contrary, the simple proven truth is that no one — not a single legislator, superintendent, reporter, policy analyst or judge — knows how much money schools need to achieve required outcomes while operating efficiently. No such study or analysis has ever been conducted in Kansas.

Having spent more than twenty years managing news operations in several states, I have great respect for journalism and those who diligently work to honestly inform citizens. I also know that reporters are sometimes forced to cover stories by editors and managers in ways they find objectionable and have misleading headlines slapped on their stories. But to paraphrase Jefferson, our republic cannot properly function when citizens are deliberately deprived of information. It is not the duty of media (or policy analysts) to make decisions for citizens, but to inform them so they can make their own decisions.

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