This is a question/complaint I hear or read about roughly once a week in some form. I heard this question far more frequently last week. It was mentioned in passing at school board meeting where a board members complained that the district has a "public image problem." It was an undercurrent at the Thursday rally in support of Superintendent Pamela Brown. And it was heard in regard to the district's hiring of a second public relations administrator.
The long version of this question/complaint is: "There are so many good things happening in the Buffalo City Schools. Teachers are working really hard, schools have these amazing community partnerships, suspensions are down, more students are graduating compared with last year, etc. Why doesn't The Buffalo News write about that?"
This question is typically stated in an accusatory fashion and often followed by self-drawn conclusions like: The News just wants to write negative, sensational stories that sell papers, or The Buffalo News has its own agenda or is somehow an instrument of The Man.
I always marvel at the great conspiracies some people attribute to The Buffalo News. Some of these people wouldn't believe the truth no matter how it's stated. But for those genuinely want an answer, here it is, in multiple parts (I have included story examples, most from the past two months):
1. Buffalo News reporters do not categorize education issues/topics/events as "positive" or "negative." They categorize them as "newsworthy" or "not newsworthy." Education reporters weigh a number of factors in deciding if a story is newsworthy. We might ask, how many parents, children or employees will this affect and how big an impact will this make? Is there evidence to support this? How useful or critical is this information in helping the public make an informed decision about their school system? Most importantly, education reporters want to know, is this information likely to greatly help or greatly harm student achievement in the school district.
So, if an organization is going to dramatically expand afterschool programs for students across half the district, that's a story with the potential to help many children. We'll write that story.
And if influential state leaders say they are worried that the district's central administration and top leadership isn't doing enough to help increase student achievement, that's also important for the public to know regardless of whether they agree or not. We'll write that story, too.
2. While News reporters believe it is their ethical responsibility to report things as accurately, fairly and truthfully as possible, we also do have a limited "agenda," if you want to call it that. We believe in holding public organizations accountable to the taxpayers that fund them. We believe in openness and transparency. We believe in looking closely and carefully at how taxpayer money is being spent and attempt to investigate whether public money is being spent wisely. That's particularly true for an organization that controls more than $800 million in public money.
When the answer appears to be no, we consider it our responsibility to publicize that information and give it a lot of attention. Now, some public organizations are more transparent than others. Some organizations communicate clearly, openly and often. They make their employees available for interviews without fuss, hand over financial documents when asked and generally consider it a high priority to use the media as a communication tool to share their vision and plans with the public.
Generally speaking, the Buffalo school district is not one of these organizations. Because it isn't, it tends to get more "negative" exposure in this regard. The Buffalo News and any other news media organization will always consider it part of their mission to change this behavior. Parents deserve to know about the education their children are receiving and the public deserves to know how their money is being spent in an organization considered vital to the city's economic growth.
If a school district is going to make it hard for parents to get information or rush the approval of important plans and documents for the turnaround of the district, we're going to write about it and we're going to run those stories in prominent places. If the superintendent declines to answer questions, we note that. This type of "negative" publicity is entirely within the district's power to change.
3. What The News writes is limited by time and resources. This newspaper devotes more staff to covering education than any other news organization in the region. Despite this, there is much more news coming out of the Buffalo school district than we have the time or resources to write.
That means we have to make judgment calls. Any given week, there may be 10 breaking Buffalo school stories that would meet our newsworthiness threshhold and need immediate attention. But there may be only one reporter free to write those stories. So a story that some might consider "positive" might be forced to give way to more important, immediate and far reaching story that some might consider "negative."
4. Not all facts are created equal. Is it true that the graduation rate has increased, that short-term suspensions are down and that high school students are doing better on the 11th grade Regents exams in English and math? It is true that there are hardworking teachers and administrators who are pouring blood, sweat and tears in their jobs so that children can succeed? Yes.
Is it also true that Buffalo graduation rates currently rank second to last in the state, that the district has lost millions in federal money because of incomplete grant applications, that a majority of schools are in bad standing with the state, and that the state education commissioner and the governor have all criticized the progress made by Buffalo City Schools in just the past few months? Yes.
The News has written about ALL of these things, the good and the bad. But given our limited time, space and resources, one set of facts received more attention, more story coverage and more higher-profile play in the paper. Guess which one? The second, of course. To write about the first set of facts at the expense of the second would be a gross injustice to the community. We don't make up facts. The truth is, some facts are more important to share with the public because public awareness is necessary to foster change for the better. That shouldn't be the goal of just The Buffalo News. That should be the goal for everyone.
5. Finally, people who state that The Buffalo News doesn't write about good things happening in schools are mistaken. There are positive stories that are very newsworthy, and we write those stories whenever time and resources allow. Sometimes, we write those stories even when time and resources are marching against us. This past Sunday's story is a good example.
The story about math teacher Keith Wiley is a story I've planned to write every since I learned of it in June, but a lot has happened in that intervening time. Wiley's story required my full attention over several days this past week. In order to devote that time, The News assigned four other reporters -- count 'em, FOUR -- to help pick up Buffalo education coverage this week because so much has been happening on the beat. If The Buffalo News didn't care about these kinds of stories, we wouldn't have devoted so much of our limited staff resources this way.
Wiley's story is an extraordinary one. It's a story that proves amazing things that are possible, even when it seems the odds against us are great. It's a story of hope for the Buffalo school district and every struggling school across this state.
Will a story like Wiley's be written before we write on declarations by the governor, directives from the state commissioner, stories about questionable district spending, the latest standardized test results or embattled school leadership? Rarely. Not when a district is in the kind of turmoil Buffalo is.
But those kinds of stories won't be forgotten either. We believe in those stories. We wish we heard more of them. And whenever we can, we'll continue to write them.