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You be the editor (part one)

I got an email yesterday from a friend who is a reporter. He was looking for another journalist's take on a potential story. Put yourself in his situation and decide what kind of story you would write, based on his email:



I received an e-mail forwarded from my editor today that just stated "News Tip" in the subject line. The body of the e-mail came from a woman who left the number of a hotel where she could be located. Long story short, she was writing about her best friend, who has a son with a mental disorder. I interviewed the best friend, who gave my information to the mom, who she implied would call me back (I haven't heard back yet).

Background:

The son was sent to two remedial schools in my county even though his mom thought he should be in regular schools. They moved to another state and the kid was granted admission into a regular school there, where he made the honor roll twice. The mom ran into financial trouble (more on that later), moved back to my hometown, and the school system again decided to enroll him in a remedial school. She eventually signed him up for a school in the next county over, where he now goes to a regular school and receives occasional side help.

The catch:

• On the one hand, the mom and her best friend argue that the son should have never been sent to remedial school in the first place and that his education there amounted to squat. That put him behind other students when he transferred. The best friend called it "organized babysitting."

• On the other hand, the mom is homeless and living in an extended stay hotel. I looked into her court record and found out that she's been sued in my county four times for debts (lost three cases) from her landlords, whom she owes thousands of dollars, including one judgment issued just last month. She's also got a traffic court hearing coming up for three counts stemming from one incident: driving on a suspended/revoked license, not buckling in a minor, and driving an unregistered vehicle. That came just months after she lost another traffic court case.

The main question I'm dealing with is how much does her personal life play into the overall issue of her son's education? She's had a ton of legal problems, I haven't heard anything about a second parent or even grandparents (they lived with the mom's great-grandparents for a while), and she's homeless. When I go to the school system to ask about this case, her legal record will inevitably come up. She's basically setting herself to have all her legal drama go public, which is potentially bad for her and her son.

My question for your students (and the one I'm asking myself) is what's appropriate to include and what's not? How much relevance do the mom's legal troubles play in a story about her son's education?

No one's holding a gun to my head telling me I have to write this story, so should I just drop it or pursue it because it does raise some interesting questions about my county's school standards versus other localities.

Evaluating the stakeholders, the son's in a good school system now by the mom's standards, so how does airing his past laundry to my audience affect him? Does identifying a minor in the newspaper with his mother's permission—assuming that's what she's seeking—and mentioning his disability hurt his reputation? After all, his name and his disability will be linked together in a Google search.

So, yeah, just another day on the job. If you have any recommendations or anything else for me to consider that I've overlooked, please pass them along.

If you were his editor, what would your call be?

In part two, I'll write about what I told him, and I'll also write about how my friend and his editor decided to handle it.

Comments

( 11 comments — Leave a comment )
susandennis
Sep. 21st, 2013 01:32 am (UTC)
I majored in journalism in college because it was a tiny major screaming for women (class of 1971) and I knew I'd get graduation skids greased. I liked investigating stuff and worked 40 hours a week as a general assignment reporter at the local paper (Wheeling News Register). I worked at two other papers after graduation until it dawned on me that I sucked as reporter and I wanted to make $$.

Your entry took me right back to my journalism ethics class. That class should have been an early warning sign because while I could argue every side to any one question, I never knew the right answer.

My 64 year old answer to your question is drop it. There's really no story there. And carving one out will harm unnecessarily.

But, mainly, your entry is so humbling. This will be my new benchmark. Every time I think I know what's right - especially journalistically, I'll remember it and know I don't. So thank you.

patrick_vecchio
Sep. 21st, 2013 01:57 am (UTC)
Thank you for the quick and thoughtful reply. I'll bet we both have memories of plenty of journalism decisions we had to make that left us cotton-mouthed and shaky. I can't say I miss that feeling.

penshark
Sep. 21st, 2013 02:15 am (UTC)
I'm torn. I think there is a story there -- why does the one school district continue to insist the boy needs remedial work while two other school districts have been willing to let him enroll in regular classes? It does call into question their standards, especially since he is excelling in the other districts.

But for the reasons that have already been mentioned, I don't think I see an immediate way to tell that story without doing serious harm to the son. And I see no indication that the mother or the best friend are even considering what might be best for him -- this feels more like a "we'll fix THAT school district" thing.

So no story right now. But I would keep that question in my head and try to do some larger-scale investigation to see if it really is a system problem or the kid's just getting caught in a crossfire between his mom and the school.
patrick_vecchio
Sep. 21st, 2013 02:28 am (UTC)
Fortunately, every other competing media outlet would see it that way too.

Especially a local TV network affiliate during sweeps week.
sahlah
Sep. 21st, 2013 01:15 pm (UTC)
Not being a journalist - just a Mom... leave the boy alone and drop it. Life is hard enough for him with little relief in sight.
patrick_vecchio
Sep. 26th, 2013 02:07 am (UTC)
Stop making sense.
(Anonymous)
Sep. 21st, 2013 04:04 pm (UTC)
WOW! This hits me in my wheel house…I was a journalism student for three years until I realized I was not going to be the next Jimmy Breslin and for the last seven years I have worked as a civil rights advocate in the area of educational rights…While I did not finish my education and hone my craft I do remember the lesson Dr. Jandoli gave us on point of view…the concept is to define POV in as few words as possible…one word is best…this story to me screams INJUSTICE on so many levels, educationally, financially and on a societal level…the real world is inherently unfair to those who have less, the poor, disabled, elderly, children, and the uneducated…as such they do not take part in the processes of life…they do not invest, work, vote, etc…this causes them to be marginalized and treated as insignificant…there is an important parallel to the story journalistically and from an advocacy standpoint…silence or perhaps the ignoring of the truth allows injustice to not only remain, but to grow in power, to the point it becomes accepted behavior…We have all been around long enough to understand the caste system in our society and educationally the reality is that those injustices built into society exists in schools because schools are a microcosm of our society…in the world and school the same paradigms exist….it seems as humans we are forever locked into the differences between the HAVES and HAVE NOTS…On an educational level…this mom needs an advocate for her son…students best advocates’ should be the school districts they attend but all to often they fall short…the flaw in parents advocating for their children is that there exists an imbalance of power…parents go to experts like doctors and lawyers because they are more expert in their area of expertise…parents do the same thing with schools…they surely must know what is best for my child they are the experts…so, parents nod their heads and follow along until they get to a point where school is supposed to have then ready for the world, and sadly, they are not…federal and state laws should protect students from inappropriate educational placements (free and appropriate education) as well as Least Restrictive Educational Environment ( regular classroom is LRE)…the things that put academic services in place are two-fold…academic performance or lack thereof and behavior…each student with a disability is protected under a host of state and federal laws which require the parent/student to request services and have the appropriate review of academic performance, cognitive testing which establishes function and aptitude on a verbal, comprehension and mathematical basis, as well as a functional behavioral evaluation, evaluates atypical social behavior necessary to place student in a more restrictive placement…it is very apparent that one school isn’t doing their job…the point is how many other students are affected with disabilities in this school…educationally here is the essence…the kind of diploma one gets in high school is the foundation for the rest of that student’s life…as a parent do you want a certificate of attendance that defines this student as dysfunctional…or an educational passport that allows your student with a disability access to higher education and more successful employment that at the very least gives this student a chance to break the cycle of poverty in his life…WRITE THE STORY!-Holiday
-30-
patrick_vecchio
Sep. 26th, 2013 02:10 am (UTC)
Good stuff, Holiday—but get that return key on your keyboard fixed.
nodressrehersal
Sep. 21st, 2013 06:59 pm (UTC)
I'm wondering if there's a way to do an investigative story WITHOUT involving the son and his mother at all- a comparative among local school districts without this boy's story being a focus at all.
(Anonymous)
Sep. 23rd, 2013 06:26 pm (UTC)
As a mother and a reader of a paper that does a lot of pretty good in depth investigative reporting, I would say make it part of a survey-type story, with no names attached - see if there are other parents who would like to share under condition of anonymity. There should be, both from the perspective of the children who have special needs and the ones who don't and ones who have special needs children in their classrooms.
There is a lesson (no pun intended) to be learned from this child's experience that other children can benefit from. I have a co-worker who has a son who is epileptic and has some disabilities as a result but given the right conditions is an excellent student. She has to fight constantly to get him what he needs, and it generally isn't much. He is popular with his peers and his teachers love him. Administration is usually the problem.
This mother's issues need not come into it as they are irrelevant. If she is looking for a golden ticket, using the facts but not making it "her story" or a story about her child should take care of that.
patrick_vecchio
Sep. 26th, 2013 02:12 am (UTC)
I can't the number of times I've seen parents or guardians or people in similar positions use kids for their own purposes and disregard the kids' best interested.
( 11 comments — Leave a comment )

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