We live in a media obsessed society—and media literacy isn't just for students. Educators need it too. Learning to interact with the press is a big part of that because too often schools find themselves reacting to news coverage, instead of helping shape it themselves.
“There's a lot of good stuff that goes on in school districts that we're not aware of, especially if teachers, principals and communications people aren't telling us,” says Alia Malik, an education reporter for the San Antonio Express-News.
At the recent TCEA 2019 conference in San Antonio, Chris Piehler of the public relations firm PR With Panache hosted a panel discussion with EdSurge, Malik and other Texas journalists. Panelists dished on how schools can better work with the media, how they can pitch their own stories to news outlets and how to find the perfect hook. These are the top takeaways from that conversation.
Know Your Story
Before reaching out to the press, consider how your story will play on each medium. Some stories—like this one—work best in print. Others can be told entirely through sound, explains Camille Phillips, an education reporter for Texas Public Radio. “With a radio story, I have to take you there with sound,” she says. “So, writing on a chalkboard, or the squeak of the chalk, or kids laughing, or just an exchange between a teacher and a student—and that can give you a lot. One of the reasons why I like working in radio is because you can tell a lot from a tone of voice.”
By contrast, television is all about visuals. “We need visual elements to help our stories,” says David Elizondo, a news producer for WOAI and KABB, San Antonio’s local NBC and Fox affiliates. “The photographer works with the reporter hand-in-hand.”
Every news outlet is increasingly online in some way, Elizondo says. Given the short lengths of radio and TV broadcasts, that means some stories won’t necessarily get airtime but can find a home on the internet. “Frankly, sometimes the online market is bigger than the viewing market.”
Find a face
Most journalists consider themselves storytellers. And hooking the press on a potential story often comes down to how it’s pitched. “Find a face,” Elizondo suggests. That means looking for the right teacher, parent or student to describe the situation. “It's something that connects our audience to the story. They relate more to it when there's an emotional or psychological connection.”
Remember what makes a good story
Stories need to resonate with the target audience. At EdSurge, that’s national (and global) educators and those in the edtech industry. For local outlets it means taxpayers, parents and the overall community. And the story—whatever it is—should be, well, a story.
As any English teacher can tell you, good stories have an arc—typically a beginning, middle and end—but they also have conflict. “A lot of stuff that makes news is the tension,” Phillips says, adding that she often looks for that arc: a strong setup, a climax or conflict and then the resolution. “That's how people connect with stories, and that's what makes it interesting for people.”
To Malik, the formula is even simpler: “Twenty happy kids learn some math’ isn't a story because they don't have to overcome adversity to learn math. Unless they do, and then please tell us about it.”
Good news is still news
“We're not looking for just the hard news. People want good news, too,” Elizondo says. “They want to hear when you've got a student who's a national scholar, when he or she is going off to some great adventure in education. We want to hear about the stories of teachers that are making a difference.”
Recently, Phillips did a profile of a special ed teacher, called “What My Students Taught Me,” that took an in-depth look at what it’s like to teach more challenging students at the preschool level. “Basically, [the teacher] had to stop following rules and figure out how to help each kid,” Phillips says. Malik has covered Southwest ISD’s attempts to create a universal pre-K program. “We saw it as part of a national trend,” says Malik, which gave a good angle to make a larger trend story relevant to local readers.
Another reason to form lasting relationships with media outlets, Elizondo says, is that it can sometimes pay lasting dividends. “In some places, media outlets will form a relationship with different districts to create an award, for example, where they spotlight a certain teacher every week. Those are great community involvement journalism things that we can get involved in as well.”
Reach out directly
It’s always best to know the name of an individual reporter who covers education. They’re likely more familiar with local schools and districts and are always trying to meet new sources. Stories submitted from generic “Email Us” forms can get passed around the newsroom before landing in the right inbox, Malik says, so a direct email—or even a tweet—is often more likely to be seen.
“Twitter probably is the best way to get ahold of a lot of journalists,” says Phillips. “But if you send an email, I would recommend having a very clear subject line about why we should care, why the audience should care. We get a lot of emails in a day, as I'm sure you do too.”
When you are working on a story with a reporter, it’s also best to keep in contact as much as possible. “If you want to have a good relationship with the media, be transparent and be responsive,” Elizondo says. “Even if it's just a phone call saying, ‘Hey, we got your email, we're working on it. What's your deadline?’”
If you request a correction, be polite
At EdSurge we try our best, but not every story is universally well-received. And, of course, reporters can make mistakes. Occasionally, sources will request corrections for factual errors or simply things they didn’t like. We always take an objective look at correction requests, but it helps when they’re phrased politely.
The same goes for emails from readers, Malik says. “If I read an insult in an email, I stop reading,” she says. “Whatever valid complaints you might have, I'm not willing to engage with someone who emails me and is insulting.”
Clarify what ‘on the record’ means
In some districts, teachers and staff are asked to get permission before speaking to the press when it concerns a sensitive issue. News organizations are happy to work with you without permission—but clarify your level of involvement ahead of time.
The general rule of thumb when talking to a journalist is that you’re always on the record unless you have mutually agreed otherwise. Another reason to clarify things upfront? Different reporters may have different definition of the terms, Malik says. “Off the record to me means that you're calling and telling me information that I am going to verify independently—without ever telling the people that I'm checking it with who told me. So it's like you're an anonymous tipster.”
Those tips are still helpful for reporters who can cite them anonymously when dealing with school or district administrators as a way of establishing a problem exists. But off-the-record protection is not always granted, Phillips explains. “My station has a rule of thumb that in order to grant some form of anonymity, it needs to be your life or livelihood at risk,” she says.
Malik adds that she’s more likely to work with teachers or those who are working with the media for the first time than with seasoned officials. “If you're worried about losing your job, that's not a position that I want to put anyone in,” she says.
The media isn’t an enemy
At a time when most Americans say they have lost lost trust in the media, Phillips explains that journalists are as committed to their jobs as educators are—and that the two are not at odds with each other.
“It is our job to hold people in power accountable,” she says. “As school districts, your job is to educate kids, and so, we're not doing our job if we're not pushing you to do your job well. But that doesn't make us your enemy.”