When School Boards Try to Block a Reporter's Access

To the surprise of Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reporter Erin Richards, the local school board president has requested that the paper remove her from the education beat and replace her with someone "less biased." It's not an isolated problem.

Roger H. Goun/Flickr

For Erin Richards, K-12 reporter for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel the agenda for the city school board meeting this week brought an odd surprise:

In his monthly activities report, Milwaukee School Board President Michael Bonds said he was requesting that the newspaper “assign a new reporter who is not biased against MPS to cover MPS.”

Richards’ first response was puzzlement. After all, she had interviewed Bonds just a week earlier and he had expressed no dissatisfaction to her. While it’s been years since Richards has been able to get some board members to return her calls, Bonds has been generally prompt and courteous in his responses.

“I thought we had a good professional relationship,” Richards told me Thursday.

In fact, Richards had been feeling more optimistic in recent days with the appointment of Darriene Driver as district superintendent last month. So far, she has appeared to be receptive to cracking open the door to school access, Richards said.

In media interviews Thursday, Bonds said his agenda item referred to a letter he sent to the newspaper asking that Richards be replaced with a reporter who wasn’t, in the board president’s perception, “biased” against the school district. Martin Kaiser, the Journal’s editor, told me no letter was ever received.

In an interview with Education Week, Bonds identified a number of concerns about the Journal’s coverage, ranging from relatively innocuous typos to broader concerns about fairness and a perceived lack of commitment to the covering the day-to-day district activities. (Bonds did not respond to my requests for an interview. Illustrious media blogger Jim Romenesko is also keeping tabs on the story.)

“We’re tired of her lopsided, inaccurate reporting,” which “portrays a negative image to the public,” Bonds told Education Week. “I’m still not convinced she is right and competent for the job.”

Kaiser, the Journal’s editor, said he has no intention of reassigning Richards, describing her as a dedicated and fair journalist.

“This is public education—to try and conduct business in secret and not give access to reporters—what are they hiding?” Kaiser asked. “There have been examples of local public schools that have done good things, and and by not giving reporters access to write about them, the district defeats its own purpose.”

The incident is part of a larger problem when it comes to covering education issues in Milwaukee, said Richards, which includes severe staff cuts at her newspaper and other local media outlets in recent years. She is now the only full-time K-12 education reporter in the city. That means she has to make the most of every reporting opportunity, and too often district officials stand in the way, Richards said.

In our conversation she described being barred from contacting specific district personnel, being required to have a district information officer present during her interviews, and frequently being stonewalled when seeking comment from officials. She, along with a half-dozen other local reporters, sent a letter this week to Milwaukee’s new schools superintendent outlining their concerns and asking for a meeting to discuss ways to improve access.

The hostile work environment described by Richards is certainly distressing. But it’s not surprising.

Last year, the Education Writers Association and the Society of Professional Journalists teamed up for a survey of education reporters covering K-12 and higher education at the local, state, and federal levels, to ask about issues and concerns related to access. Among the findings: Nearly four out of every 10 of the public information officers (PIOs) surveyed said they had intentionally blocked a reporter’s access because they were unhappy with prior coverage. Here’s what I wrote at the time of the survey’s publication:

A frequent complaint from PIOs is that reporters “get the story wrong,” or somehow don’t fully convey the nuances of a complex situation. That’s a reasonable concern, and the best way to address it is to give reporters access to the individuals in a position to explain those complexities and provide the relevant context.

But let’s also look at this through the lens of the realities of today’s newsrooms. In a separate survey, nearly 60 percent of EWA’s members said their top work challenge was finding enough time to write the stories that need to be told. Richards is the only full-time K-12 reporter left in Milwaukee. How reasonable is it to expect her to cover every story the district believes merits attention? And even if the newspaper had a fleet of education reporters, the district has no right to dictate coverage.

“The idea that a government agency gets to decide who reports on them is so fundamentally un-American that it makes you wonder about this person having any authority over schools,” said Frank LoMonte, executive director of the nonprofit Student Press Law Center in Arlington, Virginia. “Want to send a letter of complaint or ask for a meeting to air grievances? Great. But what the school board president did can only be viewed as an attempt to embarrass the reporter.”

As for Richards, she said she’s doing her best to balance her numerous assignments with providing nuanced coverage of the school district, and she’s happy to talk to anyone—including Bonds—who has concerns about her reporting.

Bonds’ agenda item was “a passive-aggressive approach to trying to control coverage of anything that doesn’t shine a positive light on the district,” Richards told me. “But there has to be a balance. I need to be able to talk to them about things that are happening, even if it doesn’t qualify as ‘good news.’ When they cut off access, reporters get frustrated and the public doesn’t get the information it needs.

This post appears courtesy of The Educated Reporter.