So what happens when you’re a reporter who covers a school district, and you’re also a parent with three kids in that district? And you think the district does a lousy job of communicating with the world. Do you sit and wait for it to get better? Or do you step up and try to make a difference?
In journalism, the rule is, You sit and wait. There is an ethical wall that we are told never to cross. You write articles that highlight shortcomings and hope that others step up and impose change.
Carla Branch, a notoriously hardworking reporter who covers Alexandria government and schools for Alexandria News.org, decided to take the leap over the wall, but still wear her Press hat at the same time. One of her competitors, the Alexandria Times, took a hard look at that in a news story last week, and then added an editorial Friday calling her “journalistically unethical” and saying Alexandria schools Superintendent Morton Sherman “used blatantly poor judgment” in hiring Branch. The nationally read media website Romenesko picked up on the story, and commenters savaged Branch. In anticipation of all this, Branch published an op-ed defending herself before the Times story appeared.
I asked Branch why she jumped over the ethical wall, and Sherman why he took her in.
First, Branch said she did so openly. She bid $24,400 for a contract through a public process and after it was awarded, she met openly with school officials, politicians and even other reporters and no one raised the issue of conflict of interest.
She also said she signed a confidentiality agreement with the school district, agreeing not to use any information obtained while wearing her Schools hat when she went back over The Wall and put on the Press hat. She also did not tell schools officials what the Alexandria News was up to.
Branch had three children in the Alexandria schools from 1992 to 2010. “As an Alexandrian, as a parent,” she said, “I feel very strongly that it is up to a lot of us to help the district improve the way they communicate. I would like to see them be more open and provide more timely information to everyone. And I consider the media a stakeholder in this too.”
In particular, she wanted school principals to be able to directly provide more information to parents and media, by having access to their school’s website (they don’t now), being able to draft press releases and speak directly to reporters. “I believe the principals have better access to better information about the schools,” Branch said, “and better contact with the community.”
But what about The Wall? The separation between Journalist and State?
Because Branch continued to cover the school district for Alexandria News while still working closely with Superintendent Sherman, writing press releases for the district while it was under siege for financial mismanagement and ousting top officials.
Sherman said in an e-mail to me: “As a superintendent of schools, I get advice from many folks. Some just up and offer suggestions without my even asking! I have always respected the arms’ length relationship with journalists, just as I ask staff to respect an arms length relationship with me.” He said Branch put in the lowest bid for the contract, and “her integrity and her body of work as a parent, community member, journalist, and objective supporter of ACPS were clear and positive proof to me that there was not a conflict of interest, at least not from my non-journalist point of view.”
Sherman added: “There was a clear line drawn that we talked about and established from the beginning of our work together. My sense is that the line Carla drew was much sharper than I see all around me in many written settings.”
By using a Freedom of Information Act request, Alexandria Times reporters David Sachs and Derrick Perkins found that Branch advised Sherman to release an audit about the financial mismanagement “as soon as possible” (yay!) and told him to respond to The Washington Post with a “no further comment” in response to a question about an official’s resignation (boo!).
“I thought about that [possible conflict] very very carefully before I took the funds,” Branch said. “The reason that I did it is that I felt that, with staff support, I could cover the system accurately and adequately while still providing assistance to the principals and the system. Our school coverage hasn’t changed. The tone hasn’t changed...While there might appear to be a conflict, it has not been.”
She added, “I knew I was going to get flak for it. And I knew there were issues. If I thought I wasn’t going to cover issues adequately for my readers, I wouldn’t have done it.”
Ultimately, she felt that “the school district did such a poor job at communicating things that it was worth it for me because I happen to know there are some amazingly good things going on in the schools. And there are things going on that need to be communicated clearly and accurately...As a community journalist, if I can help them get better, then I can help every media outlet, including you, and hopefully the school district in the future. If I’ve done that, slap my hand and send me to bed without my dinner.”
Her contract with the Alexandria schools expired June 30. It may well result in better coverage of the schools down the road, now that Branch has acquired an insider’s view of how things work. But while she was on the inside, she probably should have made it clearer to readers that she was accepting money from the district while covering it. The readers are the ones who need to know of a potential conflict, and judge for themselves if the coverage is still fair and balanced.
Branch feels she was open in her dual-hat-wearing role because she openly bid and won the contract. But she is accustomed to sitting through endless nights of bureaucratic mumbo-jumbo in these city council and school board meetings. For the rest of us, a little disclaimer at the end of the articles would have truly put the situation out in the open.