June 21, 2000 1 min read

Press Relations: The relationship between news reporters and school officials is often wary, if not salted with distrust.

Reporters want ready access to school facilities, personnel, students, and records. Administrators, especially if they’ve been “burned” by an irresponsible journalist, often want to know the reporter’s angle before swinging open the gate.

Both perspectives are aired in a new publication by the Hechinger Institute on Education and the Media. Despite its title, “A Journalist’s Primer on Access to Schools,” the guide is good reading for school officials, too.

The 16-page publication aims to help schools open themselves to the media, and to help the media use that access responsibly. It draws on discussions at a seminar held last November by the institute, which is part of Teachers College, Columbia University, in New York City.

An education reporter quoted in the publication, Scott Stephens of The (Cleveland) Plain Dealer, argues that school public-information officers have a duty to produce any requested information in a timely fashion—no matter whether they think the reporter is “fair” or “responsible.”

The reporter is a proxy for the public, Mr. Stephens says. “If veteran education reporters, many of them sophisticated in public-records laws and with a newspaper’s law firm in back of them, cannot get information, what chance does the average parent or community activist have?” he asks.

Roger Jones, a former public-affairs consultant for the Newark, N.J., schools, agrees that the information officer is obliged to help the reporter—but not necessarily to respond instantly or comprehensively.

A reporter will gain the best access if he or she develops an “understanding” with the official, who in turn can transmit that understanding to other school employees, Mr. Jones says.

The role that a classroom teacher can play in shaping access is detailed by Ted Kesler, a 3rd grade teacher in New York City’s Special Music School of America. Three years ago, New York Times reporter Jacques Steinberg attended Mr. Kesler’s class for about a year while working on a nine-part series.

“A Journalist’s Primer on Access to Schools” may be ordered for $5 per copy by calling the Hechinger Institute at (212) 678-4197, or by writing to the institute at Teachers College, Columbia University, 525 W. 120th St., New York, NY 10027-6696.

—Andrew Trotter

A version of this article appeared in the June 21, 2000 edition of Education Week