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Media Shy

By Rhea Borja — January 01, 2002 7 min read
When journalists come sniffing around schools for a story, many administrators tell them to go home.

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. Campbell had driven to the school to research a story she was writing 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 program, in which students took ducklings home to see if they bonded with humans.

The conversation became heated. “She began asking a lot of questions, and for every answer, she had a rebuttal,” Spillman recalls. “I asked her the focus of the article, and, to me, it had a negative slant to it.” Spillman concluded that the reporter was pursuing only the experiment’s possible problems, which Campbell had heard about from critical community members.

When Campbell asked the principal which teacher was overseeing the project, Spillman declined to answer. “I didn’t want to hang a teacher out to dry,” she remembers. “I wanted to take the heat for it.” The mood in the office became more tense. Campbell persisted with her line of questioning, according to the principal. “She asked, ‘Why not, why not, why not?’ She wouldn’t move on.” So, after a few minutes, Spillman called in the school’s security officer to remove Campbell, whom he handcuffed and escorted out of the building. Later, matters got even worse for Campbell: The school hit her with a misdemeanor trespassing charge.

The incident is one of the more confrontational moments that have occurred between a school administrator and a journalist in recent years. But it’s not the only one, and it points out just how fragile the relationship between school officials and the news media can be.

Campbell claims she was only doing her job. She went to the school after the principal wouldn’t return repeated phone calls, she says. “I wasn’t out to get them.” The trespassing charge will be dismissed in a year if Campbell performs 50 hours of community service and does not visit Woodbridge High School in that time.

The choice principal Spillman faced—to open up to the media or shoo the press away—is a dilemma that more and more administrators must tackle. 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 September 11, reporters immediately want to know how students are reacting. In light of such demands, some administrators say, they must limit the access they give the press or schools would have reporters around all the time.

Except in the most unusual of circumstances, districts tend to let individual principals decide whether to allow reporters on their campuses. For example, though New York City did not officially declare schools off-limits to the media after the attacks on the World Trade Center, reporters’ requests to visit campuses were turned down by the district office in the days immediately following September 11. However, it wasn’t long before principals were once again choosing whether to host journalists on a case-by-case basis.

When administrators want to prevent reporters from interviewing students or teachers, a common tool is the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act. 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-1980s, schools asked parents to sign forms if they did not want their children interviewed or photographed by the media, says Lori Crouch, assistant director of the Washington-based Education Writers Association and a former reporter. That began changing in the early ’90s, she contends. Now many principals automatically declare all students off-limits unless parents have signed consent forms giving approval for their children to be interviewed or photographed.

Karen Kleinz, associate director of the Rockville, Maryland-based National School Public Relations Association, says schools have become savvier about controlling information out of necessity. “The public doesn’t want just feel- good stories anymore,” she observes. “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 says, “the media is demanding to be in everywhere.” Also, she adds, so-called negative news stories have made officials even more media-shy. “It’s not that educators don’t want their stories told,” Kleinz says. “But they’ve been burned in the past.” Still, while shutting the press out may shield schools temporarily from unfavorable coverage or unwanted interruptions, schools can pay a price in the longer run, media relations experts advise. “Being in an adversarial mode is so detrimental to our children,” Kleinz agrees. “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.” While some districts have restricted reporters’ access to schools, she points out, others are hiring public relations officers to smooth communications with the press and draw up guidelines for reporters. Others give media training to employees to ensure that their messages come out clearly.

Even the most publicity-shy districts can change. Take the 369,000-student Miami-Dade County school system. For years, the local press battled with deputy superintendent Henry Fraind, who wouldn’t allow anyone else to speak for the district but often made it difficult for the press to reach him. Fraind charged exorbitant fees for simple information queries, ignored reporters’ deadlines, and demanded that media requests be in writing before routinely turning them down, members of the local press say. (Fraind was unavailable for comment for this story.) “Under the reign of Henry, it was a very obstructionist school district,” says Bob Radziewicz, education editor of the Miami Herald. “I don’t expect them to open up every little dark secret they have, but I want to know how schools are doing. “

When, in January 2000, 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, Fraind denied her request. After that, the school board stripped him of his public relations duties, created a public information office, and hired Alberto Carvalho to run it. These days, the district regularly allows reporters onto school campuses. In the past year and a half, Carvalho has organized breakfast meetings with reporters, invited them into school staff meetings, and reached out to the Spanish-language media. In addition, Carvalho’s office offers media training and press-contact lists for administrators, regularly updates an online “pressroom,” and offers a back-to- school media information kit.

Not surprisingly, education reporters like the change. Says Radziewicz of Carvalho: “He’s very cooperative. He’ll try to get you the information you need.” But the ultimate beneficiary of the newly positive relationship may be the public schools. “Over the past year, [local education] coverage has increased in a more factual and responsible way,” Carvalho says.

Schools and the media can get along if each side bends a little, says Nora Carr, an assistant superintendent in North Carolina’s Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools. Carr says that her staff regularly urges school employees to return reporters’ phone calls, and the district offers television media training for administrators. “It’s in their best interest to provide the context, the expertise to them,” she says. “The more transparent an organization can become, the better it is for the community.”

“And yet,” she adds, “there will always be some limits.” For instance, Carr recounts the time when reporters wanted to follow a principal on her first day at a school where a 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,” Carr says. “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.”


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