Educators, Journalists Spar Over Media Access

By Rhea R. Borja — October 24, 2001 8 min read
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When newspaper reporter Kelly Campbell entered the principal’s office at Woodbridge High School in Virginia last June, little did she know she’d walk out in handcuffs.

Ms. Campbell had driven to the school after the principal didn’t return her phone calls for a story for the daily Potomac News about a science project. After a brief wait, Principal Karen Spillman invited the reporter into her office to talk about the project, in which students took ducklings home to see if they bonded with humans.

The conversation became heated. Ms. Spillman concluded the reporter was pursuing only the experiment’s possible problems, which Ms. Campbell had heard about from critical community members. The reporter also wanted the name of the teacher overseeing the project, but Ms. Spillman refused to tell her. After a few minutes, Ms. Spillman asked the school’s security officer to remove Ms. Campbell, whom he handcuffed and escorted out of the building. She was later hit with a misdemeanor trespassing charge.

The incident was one of the more confrontational moments between a school administrator and a journalist in recent years. But it was not the only one, and it points out just how fragile the relationship between school officials and the news media can be. When that relationship breaks down, schools often react by restricting reporters’ access.

While shutting the press out may shield schools temporarily from unfavorable news coverage or unwanted interruptions, schools can pay a price in the longer run, experts on media relations say.

“Being in an adversarial mode is so detrimental to our children,” said Karen Kleinz, associate director of the National School Public Relations Association, based in Rockville, Md. “One of our most important allies in a crisis is the media. We have to learn how to work with them. And educators are just now realizing that.”

Under the Spotlight

Educators say hot-button issues from student violence to high- stakes testing have brought schools increasingly under the news spotlight. As a consequence, members of the press want to interview students and teachers, often in the classroom.

And when disaster strikes, as it did with the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, reporters immediately want to know how students are reacting and how school staff members are helping them cope with their fears and concerns.

In light of such demands, some administrators say, educators must limit the access they give the press or schools would have reporters on campus all the time.

But advocates of the freest possible access contend that public schools have clamped down on information that should rightfully be in the public eye, and that reporters are having more difficulty than ever writing even “feel good” stories. They suggest that educators have gone too far in their efforts to protect students’ and teachers’ privacy rights.

Administrators increasingly are invoking the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act to prevent reporters from interviewing students or teachers, some media representatives say.

Under the federal law, passed in 1974 and also known as the Buckley Amendment, no one can write about, photograph, film, videotape, or audiotape students without their parents’ consent. In the mid-1980’s, schools asked parents to sign forms if they did not want their children interviewed or photographed by the media, said Lori Crouch, the assistant director of the Washington-based Education Writers Association.

That began changing in the early 1990’s, says Ms. Crouch, a former reporter. Since then, some schools have automatically said all students are off-limits unless parents have signed consent forms giving approval for members of the media to talk to or photograph their children.

“All of a sudden,” Ms. Crouch said, “schools were propagating all of these rules. Some principals have always been open, while some have always been more defensive. And the defensive ones got even more [so].”

Change in Miami

But after years of confrontation, some school districts are seeking better relations with the press.

Take the 369,000-student Miami-Dade County school system. In the past year and a half, the nation’s fourth largest district has changed from being extremely-closed and media-hostile to one that regularly allows reporters onto school campuses and provides good access to its new public information officer, Alberto M. Carvalho, say local journalists.

Since his appointment last year, Mr. Carvalho has organized breakfast meetings with reporters, invited them into school staff meetings, and also reached out to the Spanish-language media.

And Mr. Carvalho’s department now offers media training and press-contact lists for administrators, regularly updates an online “pressroom,” and offers a back-to-school media information kit.

“He’s a good guy to work with, very professional, very polished,” said Bob Radziewicz, the education editor of The Miami Herald. “He’s very cooperative. He’ll try to get you the information you need.”

Reporters in the Miami area say it wasn’t always so. For years, the local press battled with Henry Fraind, the deputy superintendent and former public information officer. He wouldn’t allow anyone else to speak for the district, but often made it difficult for the press to reach him. Mr. Fraind also charged exorbitant fees for simple information requests, ignored reporters’ deadlines, and demanded that media requests be in writing, before routinely turning them down, the local press say.

Mr. Fraind was unavailable for comment for this story.

“Under the reign of Henry, it was a very obstructionist school district,” Mr. Radziewicz contended. “I don’t expect them to open up every little, dark secret they have, but I want to know how schools are doing. “

The last straw for the district was in January 2000, when talk show host Oprah Winfrey wanted to film at William H. Turner Technical High School, showcasing the school as a successful example of urban education. But Mr. Fraind denied her request and Ms. Winfrey went elsewhere.

After that, the school board stripped him of his public relations duties, created a public information office, and hired Mr. Carvalho.

“Over the past year, the coverage has increased in a more factual and responsible way,” Mr. Carvalho said. “Now, we’re willing partners. We’ve established relationships with certain individuals where I can call on them for good news stories.”

‘They’ve Been Burned’

Ms. Kleinz of the National School Public Relations Association says schools have become savvier about controlling information in recent years by necessity.

“The public doesn’t want just feel-good stories anymore,” she said. “They want to know, ‘What are you doing with our students? How are you spending our money? How does this program compare with that one?’” As a result, she said, “the media is demanding to be in everywhere.”

Also, Ms. Kleinz said, so-called negative news stories have soured many educators on the press. Such experience has made many administrators, who usually aren’t trained to deal with reporters, even more media-shy.

“It’s not that educators don’t want their stories told,” Ms. Kleinz said. “But they’ve been burned in the past.”

Still, most schools try to work with the media, she pointed out. While some districts have restricted reporters’ access to schools, they’re also hiring public relations officers to smooth communications with the press and draw up guidelines for reporters.

Some districts even give media training to employees to ensure their messages come out clearly.

That’s what they’re doing in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school system, said Nora Carr, an assistant superintendent of this 100,000-student North Carolina district. The system offers television media training for administrators and she and her staff regularly urge school employees to return reporters’ phone calls.

“It’s in their best interest to provide the context, the expertise to them,” Ms. Carr said. “I think you’re much better off giving the media as much information as possible. The more transparent an organization can become, the better it is for the community. And yet there will always be some limits.”

For instance, Ms. Carr recounts the time when reporters wanted to follow a Charlotte-Mecklenburg principal on her first day at a school, one whose dismal academic record helped oust the previous principal in the middle of the school year. But she told the reporters to forget about it.

“Yes, it was an interesting story,” Ms. Carr said. “But we had to wrap a cocoon around this principal so she could get her job done. I understood the news value, but what’s most important? It was for her to focus and spend time with kids and teachers without the glare of the media.”

Building Relationships

Ms. Campbell, the reporter who was caught up in the Woodbridge, Va., dispute, now works at The Press of Atlantic City in New Jersey as a courts and government reporter, a position she accepted before her arrest. But the Woodbridge High incident has left a bad taste in her mouth.

The trespassing charge will be dismissed in a year if Ms. Campbell performs 50 hours of community service and does not visit Woodbridge High School, according to an agreement she made with the Prince William County General District Court.

She only went to the school after the principal wouldn’t return repeated phone calls, she said. “I wasn’t out to get them.”

The principal, Ms. Spillman, paints a different picture. She says the reporter came at the end of an already difficult day. As a result, she didn’t have a chance to call Ms. Campbell before the reporter came to school, the principal says. And when Ms. Campbell entered her office, she seemed “miffed,” according to Ms. Spillman.

“She began asking a lot of questions, and for every answer, she had a rebuttal,” Ms. Spillman said. “I asked her the focus of the article, and to me it had a negative slant to it.”

When Ms. Campbell asked the principal what teacher was overseeing the science project, Ms. Spillman declined to give the teacher’s name. “I didn’t want to hang a teacher out to dry,” the principal said. “I wanted to take the heat for it.”

The mood in the office became more tense. Ms. Campbell persisted with her line of questioning, according to the principal. “She asked, ‘Why not, why not, why not?’ She wouldn’t move on,” Ms. Spillman said.

Ms. Campbell counters that she only wanted the principal’s side of the story.

What’s troubling about the incident is that the news media and the local schools usually have an excellent relationship, said Edward L. Kelly, the superintendent of the 55,000-student Prince William County school system, which includes Woodbridge High School.

“There is a level of trust that has to be developed,” Mr. Kelly said. “Building relationships. That’s what it really boils down to.”


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