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Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, Peter DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. Former superintendent Michael Nelson is a frequent contributor. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

Schools Should Reconsider Their Relationships With the News Media

By Peter DeWitt — August 17, 2018 5 min read
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Avoiding the media is flawed thinking. Creating positive relationships with them should be put under serious consideration. Don’t wait until a negative issue takes place because it will be too late.

The news media is under attack these days. We need not look any further than the use of the words “Fake news” to understand that. In fact, over 300 media outlets recently came together to fight what they refer to as President Trump’s “Dirty War” against them (Read more about it in this BBC News story).

This may all seem like something schools do not have to concern themselves with, because they really do not need to have another political issue to combat. However, the issue of working with the news media is more important to schools than leaders may think. It’s actually one of the issues many leaders avoid dealing with because they are uncomfortable with the idea of saying things on camera. This, however, may be a flawed way of thinking. Don’t believe me?

What about if...

  • Discriminatory graffiti appears on the school walls...
  • A parent complains to the news that their child is being bullied and the schools won’t listen...
  • Word gets out that a student brings a knife/gun to school to show to friends...
  • State testing scores are released...

...the news media will be there to dig deeper for information.

When the reporter comes walking in with a microphone demanding information, the principal on the receiving end should hope that they have a positive relationship with the news media in their area. It may not prevent the media from covering the story, but it will guarantee that the school will be able to share their side.

It’s About Having a Voice
When I was a school principal I used to do weekly/monthly segments on WNYT, which was our local NBC affiliate in Albany, NY. The relationship began when I was finishing up my career as a teacher in a high poverty city school. I felt that our school was missing in the news because the stories seemed to focus on the suburban schools in the area, and I felt our students and teachers were doing important work that needed to be highlighted, so I contacted one reporter named Elaine Houston, and she came to the school. That relationship followed me to my principalship.

Over the 8 years I ended up working (for free. I was not getting paid) with a variety of anchors, we focused on important issues that parents and families needed to know about. When tough topics surfaced in the national media, I worked with WNYT to break it down to a more local understanding. If we are not explaining the school side of a debate to parents, families and community members, who is?

What I found over that time is that some colleagues were concerned about their district being represented on a monthly basis. After all, many leaders want to be ignored by the media, and do not think we should actively go seeking for media attention.

But then it happened.

Our district went through several years of budget cuts that resulted in a loss of millions of dollars. Additionally, we had multiple teacher and administrator layoffs, as well as a school consolidation that angered the community. There was an anonymous hate blog created by a parent of a child in the school we were closing, and our board meetings were chaotic. The news media showed up to have it all on camera.

At the same time, public schools were experiencing increased accountability and mandates, as well as a governor who was bashing the public school system. Through the relationship with WNYT I was able to bring our superintendent on the news a few times to explain all of the issues we were dealing with at the time. I was able to do segments focusing on what was happening in education and why it mattered to viewers. Did it change everyone’s perspective? No, it did not. However, it helped many families in the community see the issues we were dealing with, and many stated it was good to hear the our side of the story.

Create Relationships with the Media
Many school officials avoid the news media until they are on the receiving end of an investigative reporter with a camera and microphone demanding more information. This is flawed thinking. Schools should be highlighted in the media, but we should also be talking about the tough issues, not avoiding them.

Clearly, principals should go “One up” and make sure that they have district office approval. I never talked about an issue without passing it by my superintendent first because, not only did I want her approval, but she was able to process the information with me.

Additionally, many districts have rules about talking to the media, and that should be clearly articulated to principals. However, if there is a “gag” order when it comes to talking with the media, the district should rethink that. Why?

There are at least 3 reasons why school leaders should consider creating a relationship with the news media. Those reasons are:

  • Transparency - We are dealing with so many issues in education. We need to be able to have discussions about what is happening in schools. We have students experiencing trauma, social-emotional learning issues, and testing and accountability. Many community members and families have no clue as to what schools are doing every day. The media gives us a venue to talk about these serious issues.
  • Positive news about the school- Our schools should be highlighted for the positive contributions they make to students lives. We are constantly fighting negative news about public education, so we should make sure we are doing our job to show all of the great experiences we offer to students. Education is one of the most important topics we can discuss, and we should be seen in the news.
  • Angry Person Rule- If school officials won’t talk to the media, the angry parent in the parking lot will. Remember, news media needs ratings as well, so they will be more than happy to talk to the angry person in the parking lot, especially if they are blown off by a school leader. If the school doesn’t share their side it will be a one-sided story.

In the End
Yes, there are many considerations when working with the media, like live segments versus taped segments that can be edited, or what the anchor is like when they report the news. I was fortunate to work with Elaine because she had an objective view of schools, but also valued education which meant she wanted everyone to have a voice.

Avoiding the media is flawed thinking. Creating positive relationships with them should be put under serious consideration. Don’t wait until a negative issue takes place because it will be too late.

Peter DeWitt, Ed.D. is the author of several books including Collaborative Leadership: 6 Influences That Matter Most (Corwin Press. 2016), School Climate: Leading with Collective Efficacy (Corwin Press. 2017), and Coach It Further: Using the Art of Coaching to Improve School Leadership (Corwin Press. 2018). He also works with NBC’s Education Nation Parent Toolkit. Connect with him on Twitter.

The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.