Fulfilling our obligation

Published 10:34 am Saturday, January 25, 2014

Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.
– Thomas Jefferson, 1787

Make no mistake; Thomas Jefferson was not a huge fan of newspapers. In fact, there are several other quotes in addition to the one above which have been attributed to him that indicate Mr. Jefferson had a fair amount of disdain for newspapers. But if there was anything Jefferson had less faith in than newspapers it was government, and he realized that if newspapers at the time were good for anything at all it was holding government accountable and exposing its antics to the people.

Jefferson was not the first, and certainly not the last, to have a love-hate relationship with the media. And it’s not hard to understand why. It is undeniable that media outlets – cable news networks, magazines, websites and yes, even newspapers – appear to delight in “bad” news. The more salacious and scandalous, regardless of how ridiculous or frivolous the story, the more airtime or space on the front pages it gets. The old newspaper phrase “if it bleeds, it leads,” wasn’t coined for nothing.

But in truth, the “bad” news – the unpleasant and the controversial things that unfortunately take place in the real world – are as important for news organizations to cover as anything else.

In recent years, The Tidewater News has taken its fair share of criticism for what has been described by local school officials as our desire to spread negative information about the Franklin City Public School system. In fairness, if I were on the school board or worked in the central office I very well might feel the same way. But the unfortunate reality is that there has been much negativity to report, and it is truly our obligation, much more so than our desire, to report it.

The Virginia Department of Education’s report on the division-level investigation, conducted by AdvancEd and obtained this week by The Tidewater News, highlight why we must report what we do – because left to its own devices the school division won’t. According to several direct quotes from the report:

• Interviews with board members and system and school leadership revealed that information regarding the academic progress of classes, grade levels and schools is reviewed during closed school board meetings.

• Routine reports by Edison Learning are given in closed meetings and are not provided for the public.

• Numerous interviewees shared their concern regarding this type of information being shared in closed session and not with parents and the community in open forums.

• “Failure to provide effective internal and external communication contributes to negative perceptions regarding student achievement and school performance” is a comment reflective of many heard by the External Review Team.

• Several participants shared incidents of concerned citizens requesting information, but not having their requests acknowledged.

• A number of interviewees stated they did not want to believe all the negativity published in the local paper about the school system’s state of affairs, but had no consistent, reliable, internal source of information attempting to be “front and center” in the community to refute the newspaper’s reporting.

As the community’s newspaper of record, there are many things we’d rather report on than the chaotic and rudderless condition of Franklin’s schools. In fact, when given the opportunity, we report thoroughly on all the great things that do take place on a regular basis. Whether it is recognizing the exemplary individual achievement attained by recent Gates Millennium Scholars, reporting on group excellence as demonstrated by Franklin’s outstanding robotics team, or regularly highlighting the fun and exciting things taking place in our schools on our weekly School News pages, we continue to give those who excel their time in the spotlight.

When the overall school system is failing, as is unfortunately the well-documented case today, we would be doing this community a great injustice if we didn’t report that to our readers as well. This community, the families, businesses and taxpayers, have a right to know exactly what is going on in their public schools, and it has been clearly documented in the state’s most recent findings that the division’s leadership doesn’t want the community to have that information. It is our obligation, and one that we take very seriously, to provide it to you. And whether school leaders want us to or not, that’s exactly what we will continue to do.

TONY CLARK, is the publisher of The Tidewater News. He can be contacted at either 562-3187 or tony.clark@tidewaternews.com