Stories like the one on today’s front page about a Millbrooke Elementary School teacher and her students should run in this newspaper more often. The story is not about anything extreme or extraordinary. No one was in trouble, went to jail or got hurt. Nor did anyone win an award or set any records. It is simply a story from the authentic middle, that vast place where most of us spend our days trying to do good work.
The story is about Dana Patterson, who wanted to make a point with her students about bad writing habits. So she dressed in black and put on a veil. Funeral music played on an iPod. The students carried words like “ain’t” written on index cards, and they all headed for little burial plots Patterson had prepared on the school lawn.
The fifth-graders buried their bad words, and a good time was had by all, including New Era Community Writer Zirconia Alleyne, who went to the school because the teacher told her about the lesson.
We love this story. We think our readers will love it. We think the school system should love it.
However, it has become almost impossible to tell these kinds of stories from the Christian County Public Schools. Over the past couple of years, the central office has insisted that the district’s community relations director be present for all interviews between a New Era reporter and a school employee. Over and over, we’ve been told it is the district’s “procedure.”
We want to get along, but district administrators fail to understand that using a media handler puts a chill on the natural conversation that should happen between a news reporter and a story subject. Although it might not be intentional, there is stiffness to an interview that is observed by a public relations employee.
We aren’t the only media folks who believe this is harmful to a free and honest flow of information.
Monday night in Anaheim, Calif., where the Society of Professional Journalists had a banquet to close out SPJ’s annual national convention, two journalists talked about problems with public affairs employees in government agencies.
Sonny Albarado, projects editor for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette and the outgoing SPJ president, spoke about “roadblocks” journalists encounter when they are trying to gather information for the public.
“There’s … the pernicious practice at all levels of government of cutting off journalists’ access to public officials and agency experts by forcing all queries to go through a public affairs officer or public information officer. And, of course, the PAO has to monitor the interview, if by chance you are granted an audience. This further chills the prospects for candid conversation and an informed citizenry,” Albarado said.
David Cuillier, the incoming SPJ president and director of the University of Arizona’s School of Journalism, said he’ll be advocating this year for the First Amendment, press rights and freedom of information.
“I’m also going to push back against excessive controls by government to manage the message, manage reporters,” he said.
It’s time for the school system to recognize how its procedures prevent the community from appreciating what happens in classrooms — and even on school lawns where innovators like Dana Patterson do good work.
Kentucky New Era editorials are the consensus opinion of the editorial board, which includes Publisher Taylor W. Hayes, Opinion Editor Jennifer P. Brown and Editor Eli Pace.