BEHIND THE STORY | Is it just me?

Sometimes I wonder, when I get to a point of extreme frustration as I have working on a story about Aligned Learning in Saint Paul Public Schools, if what happens to me happens to other journalists. Does everybody get put off for weeks and get declined for each person they specifically request to speak with? Am I doing something wrong? Do I have some sort of reputation that makes me blacklisted? 

Aligned Learning, originally called Managed Instruction, was implemented a few years ago as a way of standardizing the curriculum and outcomes across different schools in the district. I covered a meeting in late 2011 about Aligned Learning and it seemed to be pretty contentious, so I set out to write an article about how it was going now.

I never had it in my mind to write a negative article. I never do — I was gathering information to write an article, not an opinion piece. And I knew when I started that I'd have to communicate with the district PR office.  The official line from the PR folks is that they are just trying to be helpful, and that teachers or principals are free to talk to anyone outside of work hours. That is definitely not the message that teachers and principals have gotten. They believe that all requests from journalists have to be screened and approved by the district office. 

I never got an outright “No, we will not cooperate with you at all” from the PR office. They connected me to a district official, which was helpful in getting the administration point of view. But I mentioned from the very beginning that I needed to speak with teachers and principals, in order to get a view of their actual experience of Aligned Learning. Despite suggesting several people, I was never provided with access to them. Instead, the district's designated PR person told me various reasons why they were not the right people to talk to for my story. When I asked if there were other teachers that I could speak to, I didn’t get a response. And when I reached out to teachers and staff on my own, I got flack for not going through the proper channels.

I also got a request to send a list of questions, and then the PR person would select the right people to answer those questions. Sorry — that's not journalism. 

In the end I was able to speak with two teachers whom I’ve interviewed for other stories in the past, as well as a parent and the president of the St. Paul Federation of Teachers. I wrote three articles as part of a series that, it turns out, are not particularly negative.  The stories include descriptions of what people working in the schools see as advantages of Aligned Learning. (The number one advantage is that it provides some continuity for transient kids, now that students can’t simply bus to their old school if they’ve moved.)

I don’t understand why it has to be so difficult. How can I tell an accurate story If I’m not allowed access to the sources who will give me the whole picture? 

POINT(114.177987 22.321702)
  • Congratulations. When they won't talk to you, they're afraid of what you'll say. And that's the story we need to hear. - by Ed Felien on Sun, 01/26/2014 - 11:28pm
  • I understand. I face the same problem with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. I just want to ask some questions and they insist on searching my home. When I write to Eric Holder (that bizarre fusion of Billy Dee Williams and Heinrich Himmler), he doesn't even reply. I also found out (from bitter personal experience) that his telephone number is unlisted. When I visit the Twin Cities FBI office, the agents race past me, shouting "Sorry! It's our lunch break!". A six hour lunch break? I suspect corruption and general goofing off. Don't let your experiences with Saint Paul Public School District deter you, Ms. Regan. "You go, girl!" as young people say. - by Bart Vanzetti on Tue, 01/28/2014 - 7:43am
  • They likely fear these stories are just a cover for their teaching staff to get a platform to air gripes. The Daily Planet has been pretty one-dimensional reporting about "aligned" or "focused" instruction in Minneapolis. The same formula: find a teacher with an axe to grind, misrepresent what "focused instruction" actually is, and pile on to the district's bad guy image. Given that's the one-sided, ideological repetition of the TC Daily Planet, what's the district's upside of contributing to the stories? - by Chris Stewart on Mon, 01/27/2014 - 10:30pm
  • Pennies of each dollar for every facet of government is spent on PR, I believe this is a misuse of tax dollars, the job competence should stand on it's own. Clearly, they want to control the message. - by GK St Paul on Tue, 01/28/2014 - 11:35pm

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Sheila Regan's picture
Sheila Regan

Sheila Regan (sheila [at] tcdailyplanet [dot] net) is a Minneapolis theater artist and freelance writer.