May 29, 2002 1 min read

Background Checks

The news media uncritically use the Heritage Foundation as a source on education, even though the conservative think tank has no relevant education expertise, a recent report contends.

Read the report, “Media Impact of Think Tank Education Publications 2001,” from the Educational Policy Studies Laboratory.

The report by the Educational Policy Studies Laboratory at Arizona State University is the lab’s second critique of work by oft-quoted conservative think tanks. Last fall, the Phoenix-based center issued a report criticizing what it said were biases in education studies published by the Michigan-based Mackinac Center. (“Research: Researching the Researchers,” Feb. 20, 2002.)

Quoting Heritage sources misleads the public and gives credibility to the Washington-based organization as a serious voice on education issues, said Alex Molnar, an author of the report, “Media Impact of Think Tank Education Publications 2001,” and the director of the laboratory.

The report was written because such groups play an increasingly influential role in state and federal policy, Mr. Molnar said. The Heritage Foundation was cited 159 times in news articles or opinion pieces last year, according to a search of a news database by the report’s authors.

“When you have a former congressional staffer with a B.A. in an unrelated field becoming a widely quoted expert on vouchers, that’s a disservice to the public,” Mr. Molnar asserted.

Journalists should indeed do their homework when looking for sources, said Bob Steele, the director of the ethics program at the St. Petersburg, Fla.-based Poynter Institute, which conducts nationally known programs to assist reporters. But he said that think tanks, like other groups, can be useful sources of knowledge and expertise, depending on the issue.

“The reality is, every one of us brings some belief and bias to the views we hold,” Mr. Steele said.

Jim Weidman, the director of public relations for the Heritage Foundation, called the study “nonsense.”

The report is not well-researched and uses outdated information, he said, adding that Krista Kafer, the foundation source the report criticizes most, worked for years as a legislative aide on education policy on Capitol Hill.

“They never bothered to call us to confirm anything,” Mr. Weidman said. “And they’re accusing us of shoddy scholarship. There’s no ‘there’ there.”

—Rhea R. Borja

A version of this article appeared in the May 29, 2002 edition of Education Week