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Reporting on Schools: Why Campus Access Matters

Back in December, reporter Lauren Foreman of the Bakersfield Californian sent an email titled “Banned from classrooms” to a group of education journalists.

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Back in December, reporter Lauren Foreman of the Bakersfield Californian sent an email titled “Banned from classrooms” to a group of education journalists.

“One of my district’s assistant supes told me today reporters aren’t allowed to observe classroom instruction, and parents aren’t even allowed to freely do that,” she wrote. Foreman wanted to know what policies were in other districts and how she ought to respond.

Foreman wanted access for a piece she was writing about how the rollout of the Common Core State Standards was going in districts across her paper’s coverage area. “Nothing scary, nothing negative — just wanted to get in there to observe,” she explained at the start of a panel on access to schools and classrooms she moderated this month at the Education Writers Association’s National Seminar in Chicago. That story did run, featuring vignettes and anecdotes from across the Delano Joint Union High School District. Noticeably absent, however, were any schools in the Kern High School District, where officials had barred access.

The Californian included a sidebar, “Why We Didn’t Get Into KHSD Classes,” which in a lot of ways changed the nature of the story.

“They gave me no choice — what else was I supposed to do?” Foreman said at the EWA panel. Foreman shared with the audience what she told Kern district officials: “Our readers will notice that you’re not part of the piece.” A columnist for the newspaper criticized what he called the district’s “short-sighted” policy and the district quickly changed its stance, lifting the ban on observing instruction.

100 Schools, 100 Days

Toni Konz, an education reporter for WDRB-TV in Louisville, Kentucky, said it’s sometimes important to “flex a little muscle.” But that’s often best as a last resort, she cautioned.

“When you go in not with blazing guns and you just talk to people, they’re more likely to help you down the line,” she said.

Konz said she tries to get into schools as often as she can. Right now, she’s midway through visiting 100 district schools in 100 days so she can meet potential sources and find stories she’d otherwise miss. (One example, about a legally blind student whose three-pointer delivered her basketball team a surprise victory, ended up being the most-clicked story on the station’s site for an entire month.)

Konz said those visits can be difficult to fit into her schedule, but “I just make the time. It’s an extra burden and it’s extra stress, but at the end of the day it’s beneficial.” Those little visits where you have no intention of doing a story can be especially valuable when a school is suddenly in the news for something “and you have an instant connection,” she said.

Building those kinds of relationships is important because journalists cannot insist on being admitted into a school on their own terms, said Frank LoMonte, executive director of the Student Press Law Center.

“If the question is, ‘Do I have a legal right to access school buildings?’ the answer is no,” LoMonte said. But schools still often overstep their legal bounds, he said, noting that schools usually cannot prevent employees from speaking to the press.Also, he said, reporters can use their best judgement to determine if parental consent should be sought before an interview. And there’s no such thing as a “minors invisibility law,” he said.

“It is not true that it’s illegal to shoot video or show faces of children,” LoMonte said. “It’s just an old wives’ tale.”

Another key point: “Some of them are in denial of this, but charter schools are public schools,” LoMonte said. And that means that in almost every instance, reporters are entitled to the same information and access they’d get from traditional district schools.

Building Rapport

Most important, reporters should build strong relationships with educators and cover schools with fairness and accuracy, the panelists concurred. That rapport often proves invaluable, with a reporter more likely to get a call back on a negative story or a scoop that might otherwise go to another organization.

And when that doesn’t work, as Konz suggested, it may be appropriate to apply the pressure. “That’s when you step in and say ‘Why not?’ … Call a school board member, tweet about it,” Konz said. “Afterwards, it’s, ‘Well of course we want you in our school!’ Well then why didn’t you tell me that in the first place?”