I’ve been a news guy for 26 years. On the education beat, I meet a lot of school people. Some of them like me, and some don’t. I’ve never been that “gotcha” type who is always looking for the worst in people, yet I’ve never hesitated in reporting those stories. I’m a competitor, I want to get the story first, and I want to get it right. I’ve succeeded in some attempts, failed in others. Through it all, I’ve made some observations I’d like to share.
Despite what many believe, most of us news types don’t wake up saying, “Gee I hope something awful happens today!” I’ll admit, I’ve had that suspicion about some in the news biz. It’s widely known that “Entertainment Tonight”-type shows get a ratings spike when bad things happen to the Anna Nicole/Michael Jackson/Whitney Houston circle of stars. I can’t help thinking they secretly, or perhaps openly rejoice when a juicy scandal lands in their lap. At least, that’s the impression I get from the gleam in their eyes and the tone of their breathless promos. But at the local level, we don’t go around high-fiving when there’s a tragedy or a scandal. We know we have to report it, but we’d have a better day if the mayor won the lottery and bought nice homes for the poor. Honestly we would. And we’d lead the newscast with it.
Not too long ago, I was informed that the principal of a local high school, and one of his assistants had been suspended for “allegations of improper conduct.” As you would expect, the school was abuzz. Teachers were talking about it, students picked up on it, and within minutes parents were receiving (and forwarding) texts, Facebook was blowing up, and the 2013 method of news/gossip distribution was in full viral glory. This is when a reputable news outlet should do its job: separate fact from rumor, and put the truth out there under its banner with “just the facts.” I cornered the superintendent, he said what he could say, didn’t say what he couldn’t say, and promised to release more at the conclusion of his investigation.
I’ve been assigned this task many times over the years, with predictable results. In olden days, the complaints would roll in via snail mail and phone calls. Now of course, the Facebook/Twitterverse erupts in seconds. “You’re only putting this on the news because it’s (My Favorite) High School! This wouldn’t make the news if it was (Our Rival) High School!” And this: “Typical tabloid journalism. You’re only telling part of the story. If they did something so wrong, why aren’t you reporting it? We want to know details!” And finally, “This happens all the time, in every workplace. What makes this newsworthy?” I can only imagine the complaints we would have received had we chosen to ignore the story (not an option). “Why are you covering this up?” would have been the frequent, and rightful question. There are no winners in these incidents. Everyone involved in the story is paying a huge personal price, and as for the media, we’ll get criticized no matter how we cover it.
By now, you know the rules. I didn’t establish them, but I must follow them. If a public figure (vaguely defined as a person of authority, fame or civic responsibility) is arrested, dismissed or suspended, he or she will make the news. Elected officials, cops, firefighters, attorneys, doctors, educators, athletes, business leaders and media personalities are among those under this umbrella. The guy who painted your house, or the lady who bagged your groceries are usually exempt. Those who aspire to be superintendents or school administrators are told (or should be told), “We’re placing you on a high pedestal. You’re going to be a leader of students and teachers. One false step in your personal life, and boom! You’re on the news.” The same could be said for teachers and school bus drivers. They’re paid, with taxpayer money, to be an example for our kids, and to keep them safe. This is why their indiscretions (DUI, etc.) often become front-page news, while your hairdresser’s escapades do not.
So when this story broke, it got a lot of reaction. Unfortunately Facebook, the “Hee Haw” clothesline gossip service of this generation, is a news source to many. “Well,” usually goes the post, “my daughter’s niece knows someone who used to go to school there, and she knows for a fact that those teachers were out last night…plus they did it in the school…and they did it out of town….blah, blah, blah.” Some news outlets were no better. One online publication cited “an incident occurring on school time, sources said.” Really? Where’s the proof? How reliable are the “sources?” This, just moments after the superintendent told me that his ultimate decision would rest on the answer to that very question: was the incident “on school time?” The superintendent did not yet know, but a news outlet was passing it along as fact, according to “sources.”
A broadcast media personality was carelessly quoting unnamed “sources” who had sent texts and e-mails to him with all sorts of inside information, so it had to be true, to hear him tell it. Could you make up a screen name, make up a story, and have it broadcast as fact? It has happened.
I know one of the educators in the center of all this. I consider him a friend who has done good things for his schools for many years. It gives me no joy to report bad news that affects him and his family. Nor do I celebrate the misfortune of perfect strangers. Every time we report a story like this, I know that we’re showing a picture of someone who has a family, a mom who is proud of them, a spouse who loves them, kids who adore them. It hurts, but we can’t pick and choose. Above all, we can’t cover it up. Despite the frequent accusations of media negativism, we have proudly reported many good things that have happened at that school, and others. Sadly, those stories don’t seem to stick with the public quite as much.
I just hope that those of you who look for accurate news information will demand that media outlets report only the facts, and leave the rumors to others. If responsible journalists don’t stick to the facts, the rumors really get out of control. People should be able to count on us to separate the two. Otherwise, we’re no better than the gossip girls on “Hee Haw.”