Reporters, You Can Do Better-0

Reporters, You Can Do Better

November 27, 2013 | Blog

Dear Justin Smith of WECT, Fox News in Wilmington North Carolina,

I viewed your news story on the Pell Grant tonight, and am very concerned about your evident attempt to blame the program for “wasting” funds.    In point of fact, what you show is after spending $40 million, just $2 million —  5%– was “wasted” on students who did not complete. That is an extraordinary rate of success given that all the Pell program does is provide money– it cannot possibly resolve all challenges students face on the road to a degree.

Your report seemed to assume that the Pell Grant makes college “free” for students who receive it. Nothing could be further from the truth. Data from your state indicates that the community colleges you reported from,  the average very low-income student–earning less than $30K in family income a year– is faced with a bill of almost $6,000 a year after taking the Pell and all other aid into account.  How is a family supposed to ensure college success for the student when it must contribute 20% or more of its take home pay to do so?  It’s nearly impossible.

The aid officer you interviewed implies that she would like to be in charge of deciding who should get aid and who should not. If she were allowed to do this, what criteria would she use? Without a doubt, she would have to choose only women– since men finish college at far lower rates than women.   If she was betting on success, she’d bet against older people too- no one over 25 would get a Pell.  Do you support local control that would lead to such program rules? I suspect not.

Your report tonight was simplistic and unhelpful to the thousands of students in your area who are trying to make a better life for themselves, becoming good taxpayers and hard-working Americans.  They work hard to complete that lengthy financial aid application and get into the classroom, and yes, it doesn’t always work out.  But they are better off for having made the effort, than having stayed home on the couch, sucking up public benefits dollar for the rest of their lives. No?



Postscript. The reporter responded the next day:


Thanks for taking the time to write. The nature of television does require some simplification, but this story was given extra time to accommodate the complexities of this topic.

We included the total amount of area Pell Grants ($40 million) so viewers could put the $2 million in context, as you did. The student who bookended the report (mother of three, making nearly all A grades) was intended to represent the many successful students who receive the grants. Furthermore, we included a sound bite from the local director of financial aid who said there are many legitimate reasons why students may need to withdraw. As for her desire for more local control, I cannot advise what criteria she would use. We simply conveyed her thoughts.

I would be interested to know how you came across my story.

Thanks again,

I then replied to him:

Hi Justin,

I appreciate your response. I saw the story on Twitter, where it is being promoted by conservatives who are equating the Pell Grant with welfare.

While you did include the total area amount of Pell, your visuals repeatedly emphasized the $2 million, and put it in large letters with “scare” type and italics. Only the reader capable of associating the $2million and the $40million and doing math would understand that it represented 5% of the total. What if, instead, your headline was that ‘Pell Grants help many successful students, and 5% go to unsuccessful ones?” Wouldn’t that have been equally, or more, accurate– though less sensational?



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