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Critiquing the AJC’s Half True Investigative Story

Today the Atlanta Journal-Constitution is running my truncated rebuttal aimed at its front page story from Sunday, September 4 headlined, “No recession in college pay.” The online headline was “10% of college staff earning $100k-plus.”

In writing the rebuttal, I used the criteria of the AJC’s PolitiFact column which rates public statements from pants-on-fire lies to fully true. PolitiFact says when a “statement is accurate but leaves out important details. That’s our definition of Half True.”

Half truth, that’s also my definition of this six-figure university salary investigative piece. It is accurate but leaves out important details.

I believe my rebuttal, using numbers, provides more context in helping understand who actually is getting those six-figures and why. Greater context would have enhanced the level of debate among those who think state-financed faculty, administrators and staff are overpaid and those who think they are underpaid. Instead judging from the comments of the politician in the AJC story and one of the students paying tuition, the impression was these six-figures salary are an outrage that needs to be fixed.

Half-truth journalism, because of its lack of depth, sounds much more sensational and quickly gets on the radar of grandstanding policy makers and politicians, which results in bad policy and bad lawmaking that stays in place long after those headlines disappear.

It really pains me to write this critique because Georgia is a state dominated by one party and it has a history of inequalities and many varieties of malfeasance and incompetency. Strong investigative journalism is needed. Indeed, it is essential for the long-term health of our local, state, regional and national democracies.

Many of the AJC’s investigations are spot-on and much needed. However, in its zeal to become known as an investigative, muckraking paper, some of its investigations resemble 6 o’clock TV, inch-deep investigative news rather than investigative reporting worthy of the state’s largest news organization. I am writing this in a hope that the leadership, reporters, editors and investigative units at the AJC take some time for reflection, and, perhaps, have some folks they respect review and critique everything that is pegged as investigative journalism.

I am afraid the crooked, unethical and incompetent folks who have been legitimately investigated will use my words to tar all the AJC investigations. This piece is not aimed at defending their actions nor at defending the bureaucratic systems that fail to serve us well. All of them need to be investigated, but that comes with a responsibility that requires in-depth reporting that goes deep beyond the veneer.

As readers and members of the public, we must demand it.

Leonard Witt is the executive director of the Center for Sustainable Journalism at Kennesaw State University. Its mission is to find ways to ensure that high quality, ethically journalism has an enduring place in our democracy.

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