Overcoming the challenges of reporting on school referendums

by | Aug 1, 2009 | Recent Writing | 0 comments

The Inlander/August 2009

How many editors have been challenged to present balanced reporting of labor disputes? It’s often a predicament, as usually one side – the union – does all the talking, and the other side – the management – largely remains mum. The dynamics make it terribly difficult to give fair, ongoing coverage in what can be a weeks-long confrontation.

The circumstances are strikingly similar in what is an increasingly common story in communities of all sizes: referendums seeking additional taxes for school operations and/or buildings.

Coverage of what occurs inside and outside classrooms is a priority at most community newspapers. So, when school boards and citizen groups seek additional funds on the theory that more money delivers a better education, they simply expect newspaper support, too.

And newspapers may well deliver that support – on the opinion page. But readers must be aware of the distinctive roles between an editorial endorsement and balanced news coverage of the arguments for and against higher taxes for schools.

Most newsrooms have probably witnessed this scenario:

The “Vote Yes” committee has the formal support of the school board. Lining up right behind are the teachers, the support staff, the parent-teacher organizations, the student council, organized labor and the chamber of commerce. These groups may go toe-to-toe on some issues – for example, teacher wage negotiations. But when it comes to school referendums, they become one happy family.

The broad representation usually results in a well-financed campaign, too, including substantial advertising, numerous mailings to households, community forums and maybe even yard signs. And it all is guided by a paid consultant.

Any referendum opponents are usually dwarfed in their efforts due to a lack of resources. If they do have the ability to organize, they often are reluctant to be too visible for fear that they will be branded as anti-kids.

The circumstances notwithstanding, editors and reporters must go the extra mile to thoroughly examine the issues. That means questioning all the facts advanced by the “pro” campaign and presenting the other side of the argument whenever possible.

In that regard, newsrooms do have many resources at their disposal. Education data is sliced and diced numerous ways, and much of it is accessible through state and federal education department Web sites. Name an education statistic, and it’s a good bet someone or some organization has analyzed it. A quick search on the Internet will likely yield a wealth of data.

If groups have hired consultants to steer their campaigns, see where else they have been hired and determine how the campaigns were run. Find out if the efforts were successful.

Editors face the same decisions as they do with any political campaign.

Editors must review and question the arguments and materials advanced by both the “Vote Yes” and “Vote No” campaigns, whether they are finely tuned or loosely organized.

Most importantly, news coverage should explore what the community will receive in exchange for the increased funding. Advocates routinely solicit support on the basis that more money will enhance the learning experience and thus improve students’ education and their ability to contribute to society. Reporters should challenge the advocates to delineate their goals in the area of student achievement, for example, and ask them to provide a schedule for delivering those results. Press them to be clear in how and when they will report progress toward these goals.

The extra scrutiny of these campaigns will certainly draw the wrath of individuals on both sides of the issue, especially among school officials and other referendum proponents, who will likely charge the newspaper as being anti-education – even if the newspaper recommends passage on its editorial page.

The truth is that the community will be stronger by a thorough examination of the issues. The referendum should pass or fail on the strength of its merits, not just on the strength of one group of supporters or the other.

There is no right or wrong way to present continuing coverage of school referendums. The bottom line is that newsrooms must be prepared for the special dynamics inherent in covering these campaigns.