12/18/2005

What the Times' Decision Reveals About Not Reporting the News

I can't help but wonder, amid all the understandable hullabaloo surrounding the Times' decision to hold back over a year on revealing that the National Security Agency was spying domestically, how often education writers and editors face the same type of dilemma -- and how they deal with it.

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I have no idea how much this happens on the education beat, though I'm guessing it happens more than we realize, in mostly small but occasionally large ways.

In my short time as a writer, I have very occasionally been asked to not report things and, on my own, decided to hold some things back. Not, obviously, for national security reasons, but rather because the information would endanger someone's job unnecessarily or seems...I can't think of a better word than "prejudicial," by which I mean damaging without particular use.

The education beat is full of people you don't want to beat up on if you don't have to: teachers, parents, kids, advocacy groups. School boards and faceless administrators? Not a problem.

Until now, at least, I haven't reflected very much on those few decisions, each of which were made quickly and usually without the benefit of a discussion with an editor.

To some extent, that's due to the fact that I'm a freelancer working for a handful of different editors at any given time, and -- just as important -- unlikely to find a home for many of the things that I pick up along the way. I don't have a regular outlet for everything I find.

But I'm not sure if it would be much different if I was a staff writer. What if an editor told me to report something that I felt shouldn't be put into print? What if an editor wanted me to hold back on something that I thought needed to be reported?

While the situation is almost irreplicably extreme, the Times' decision makes me think that education writers might ought to at least take a moment to think about what they hold back -- consciously or without thought -- whether they do so on their own or with consultation, and whether it's the right thing to do.

For me, at least, I think that there may have been times I should have talked to someone -- directly involved or not -- and where I may have held back without enough deliberation. How do I know? In part because I can't think of anytime I've crossed the line the other way.

I'm sure this is covered in Journalism 101 -- a class I unfortunately never took. And I'm guessing that there are many other education writers who have dealt with this situation in the past with great wisdom. Any experience or advice would be much appreciated.

4 Comments:

Anonymous Bob said...

Alexander,

Once when I was at Education Week, I reported on an internal Education Department study of centers and labs that was not flattering to the institutions. Someone associated with the institutions (I won't name this person) tried to get me to stop reporting on the study, claiming that it was not intended to be released. I thought that was one of the most unprofessional things I had ever encountered and ignored that request. The piece was published, it caused a few black eyes, and life went on. And I never regretted my actions.

8:23 AM  
Blogger Caroline said...

I'm a San Francisco public-school parent and advocate (volunteer, unpaid, from the heart). I was an outspoken and fairly visible critic of Edison Schools during the time that Edison was widely viewed as walking on water, healing the sick, making the lame walk, etc. (See www.pasasf.org ) I'm also a journalist.

I had an experience with suppression of an assigned article on Edison. In summer 2001, the San Francisco Chronicle assigned me to do the "con" side of a pro-con debate on Edison, a format their Sunday opinion section was using at the time. Edison refused to participate, so the editor who made the assignment told them that it would just be a viewpoint on Edison by a critic, with no pro viewpoint given, in that case.

The Chronicle received a letter signed by several dozen parents at San Francisco's Edison-run school urging them not to run the article (of course it is not known who wrote or orchestrated the letter), and the Chronicle cancelled the assignment.

It's pretty shocking that the likely subject of a negative article would be able to influence an editor to cancel the article. It was in keeping with the tone of much of the news coverage of Edison Schools at that time, though.

11:57 AM  
Blogger Alexander Russo said...

that's a slightly different, but no less interesting, situation. i wonder whether they killed the piece because of the letters, or because they didn't have a pro essay to balance things out.

2:32 PM  
Blogger Caroline said...

It was, and is, normal for that section to run opinion pieces without necesarily a balancing article giving the other side -- the pro-con debates were one specific format. So if it had been because there was no pro essay for balance, that would have been an inconsistently applied principle. I think it was the letter (it was one letter with numerous signatures), given the fact that the Chronicle was expressing strongly pro-Edison editorial views at the time.

(Now that Edison has fallen from grace, they act like they've never heard the name, but that's another story.)

7:54 PM  

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