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?