By Brad Hughes
KSBA Director of Member Support Services
A frequently offered piece of advice to those who work with the news media has an origin that is subject to debate.
Some attribute the saying to writer Mark Twain. A 1989 Ohio court ruling calls it “Greener’s Law,” a reference to William Greener, assistant secretary of defense in the Ford administration. Another researcher credits the line to former Indiana U.S. Rep. Charles Brownson, later editor of the Congressional Staff Directory, a collection of biographies, leadership positions and other information on members of Congress.
“Never fight with a man who buys ink by the barrel and paper by the ton.”
This is good advice – up to a point. Too often, officials blame reporters for mistakes that could have been averted by a little extra advance explanation of the issue. Yet there is no denying situations exist when reporters and editors either purposely slant stories and headlines, or maybe less intentionally just don’t agree on the facts of the issue.
One such situation took place this spring in media coverage of a Kentucky Department of Education leadership audit of Metcalfe County High School and the district’s central office. The approach local leaders took to what they strongly felt to be a “misleading” newspaper report is itself an interesting story.
Fact or fiction?
Metcalfe County High School is on KDE’s list of persistently low-achieving schools for failing to meet academic progress targets. Two years into the designation, a department team conducted a leadership audit, designed to determine whether school and districts leaders had demonstrated results to turn the school around.
The audit was released at a Metcalfe County Board of Education meeting covered by a reporter with an area newspaper. When the story appeared, Superintendent Pat Hurt and Principal Kelly Bell were not happy.
“The article distorted the true results of our most recent school and district audits, was very misleading and painted us in a negative light,” Hurt said. “The opposite was true. We had been celebrated by the KDE team for our great gains and progress shown over the past two years. The hard work and progress were not portrayed in the article. It was seen as an injustice to our faculty and staff who had committed to excellence. It was just wrong to let it go unnoticed without comment.”
Indeed, Bell and Hurt didn’t let it go unnoticed. First, Hurt tried to get a corrected story.
“I did call the reporter and shared my dismay and disappointment with his portrayal of our real accomplishment,” she said. “I tried to get a retraction, but none was forthcoming. He was intent on negative reporting, staying with the four next steps (recommended for additional improvements) rather than seeing all 88 indicators involved and our progress on nearly every single one.”
So Bell and Hurt took the unusual step of purchasing – from their own pockets – full-page advertisements in the regional paper that published the article and in the local newspaper. The ads were headlined “Metcalfe County Board of Education Celebrates 2012 Scholastic Audit Results.” The ads consisted of 36 pie charts comparing the 2010 and 2012 audits on everything from curriculum, planning and growth to leadership, instruction and community support. Most of the charts showed dramatically higher audit team assessments this year compared with the review two years earlier.
A key point of the ads was a lack of any reproach of the reporter, who Hurt said heard the audit and saw the charts in the original presentation.
“We chose to take the high road,” Hurt said. “He is a new, young reporter. I thought it best to try to educate him rather than to berate him. I also saw that if it was to be corrected, I had to go another way. Some things are simply worth doing and this was one of those things worth the dollars it took to tell the real story. Ms. Bell and I agreed to split the cost of truth telling on behalf of our students and staff who deserved no less than the reward for the hard work accomplished in the past two years.”
The Last Word
While some may question fattening the wallets of the media outlet that originated the article, Hurt has no regrets. In fact, Metcalfe County leaders spread the word in advance about the ads through emails, word of mouth, even a note from the local Chamber of Commerce. She heard from many people in the community – especially from high school and district staff – who were pleased their leaders took an aggressive stand to set the record straight.
Few – very few – situations will ever be resolved by public officials choosing to ignore significant misinformation in the news media. Even fewer will improve by “declaring war” on the offending reporters and editors. But there will be times when school leaders who become creative in telling their stories can reap benefits in the form of community understanding and staff confidence.
And that’s a message worth getting out.