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Why Does the Chronicle's Big Exposé on Public School Segregation Seem So Oddly Familiar?

Oh, right, because of that other big exposé on the same topic... 


Stop us if this sounds familiar: Despite good intentions, San Francisco’s public schools struggle to create racially integrated classrooms. The culprits are many, but include the school district’s policy of allowing parents to choose—via a bewildering lottery system—which schools their children will attend. It’s not just the subject of an ambitious multi-part series that the Chronicle began publishing this weekend. It's also the subject of an entire issue of the San Francisco Public Press that was released a few months ago and prominently cited by numerous websites, including Washington Post's Wonkblog, in March. 

How similar are the two reports? Pretty dang similar. Here’s the thesis of the Public Press's lead article, written by Jeremy Adam Smith [italics ours]: “Today few educators and parents publicly dispute the idea that diversity is good for kids and for society as a whole. Yet despite their aspirations and efforts, San Francisco schools are increasingly segregated.” And here’s the same from Heather Knight's story in the Chronicle [again, italics ours]: “Now that parents have more say in their children’s education than they have in decades, San Francisco’s public schools are increasingly segregated.”

But the parallels stack up from there. Both stories offer a pair of anecdotes: One from a lower-performing school dominated by Latino or African-American students and one from a higher-performing school with more whites and Asian-Americans. The Chronicle offers Clarendon and Cleveland; the Public Press uses Grattan and Bryant. Both offer head-shaking school board members bemoaning the trends—illustrated by a timeline of important moments in the history of school desegregation. The Chron presents a nifty-looking graph charting the racial makeup of every public school in town for the 2013-14 school year. It’s eye-opening data—and it’s exactly what the Public Press ran, down to the same school year, 2013-14. The only difference? The Chronicle’s graph is tipped 90 degrees and lists the school alphabetically, rather than from most to least diverse.

We asked Knight whether the two reports were connected—she said it was just a "coincidence." That, however, was a tough pill for Public Press executive director Michael Stoll to swallow. "Honestly, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery," he wrote us. "We were so glad to see that we gave the largest paper in Northern California the idea of reporting on segregation in public education. We just hadn’t expected their report to look so strikingly similar to ours."

Audrey Cooper, editor-in-chief of the Chronicle, denied that the paper relied on the earlier report in framing its own work, claiming that she hadn't seen the Public Press material until today. "We started requesting data and reporting these stories in September—months before the [Public Press] published theirs. (The lede of our story references a school fair in October.) We did not know they were pursuing a story on this topic. But even if we had, would we stop reporting stories because a smaller media outlet did a piece on the topic? Of course not." 

But the overlap, Stoll believes, isn't just in the topic. He asserted that his paper "dug up all the statistics that the Chronicle has taken credit for. We had the same charts and graphs, similar anecdotes, angles, and many of the same sources. They even mimicked our print design, with a front-page introduction to a special broadsheet pull-out section and a sidebar on the role of PTA funding in stacking the deck against poor kids."

Countered Cooper: "We put more than six months of all-original work into producing a work of journalism that I believe goes deeper than what the Public Press published. If anything, I'm gratified that so many journalists in SF think the topic of school diversity is important and worthy of such attention." 

On that Cooper and Stoll agree. "The important thing is that the story got out to hundreds of thousands more people than read the original story," he said, "and because of that it is more likely to spur policy reforms in the school district."

Or, if nothing else, it gives San Francisco journalism nerds something new to gossip about.


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