April 9, 2013
Editor’s note: After some of our readers criticized our decision to publish a story about parent activist Leonie Haimson’s decision to send her younger child to private school, we asked Kelly McBride, a media ethicist, to evaluate our reporting and promised to publish her assessment, no matter what she concluded. This is what she said.
In a professional newsroom, employees are often warned to get used to the spotlight of scrutiny. When you make your living holding others accountable, you have to expect that others will hold you to a high standard.
In the last decade, as the number of professional journalists has shrunk, activists and bloggers have stepped in to do the tough work of journalists, namely holding the powerful accountable.
This is especially true when it comes to education in New York City, where many people have stepped into that gap to hold the powerful accountable. Among them is Leonie Haimson, founder of the NYC Public School Parents blog and executive director of the non-profit organization Class Size Matters.
Haimson’s narrative as an activist began 15 years ago, when she enrolled her daughter in elementary school and was discouraged to discover a large class size. Since then she has become an influential thought-leader, activist, and blogger, her grassroots expertise widely cited and quoted in significant conversations about public policy that impact New York’s children.
So it made sense that when Geoff Decker, a reporter for GothamSchools (another organization dedicated to holding public school officials accountable) learned that Haimson’s only minor child was attending a private high school, his instinct was to write a story.
It was a good call.
As a journalism ethics consultant at Poynter, I’ve guided reporters and editors through hundreds of decisions over the past decade. That’s why Philissa Cramer, managing editor of GothamSchools, asked me to do an independent analysis of her newsroom’s decision to make Haimson’s choice to put her child in private school public knowledge.
GothamSchools had two choices to make. First, Decker and his editors had to decide whether Haimson’s school decision for her child was newsworthy. And after determining the story was newsworthy, the site had to decide what sort of treatment to give the story.
To make the first choice, Decker and his editors had to simply ask: Would people be interested to know that the editor of the NYC Public School Parents blog is no longer a public school parent? Of course they would.
Critics of the story suggest that because Haimson works for free, her private choices about where to enroll her child should remain private, that the public has no business knowing where her child goes to school.
But the fact that The Wall Street Journal, the New York Post, and the New York Daily News picked up the story reinforces the idea that it was truly newsworthy.
That brings us to the second choice: How to handle the story. GothamSchools didn’t name the child, the school, or even if the child is a boy or a girl. Decker interviewed those who viewed Haimson’s choice both positively and negatively.
Decker found out about Haimson’s school choice from an anonymous source last summer. In September, he asked Haimson where her child was going to school and she answered truthfully. When he suggested that the private-school choice was worthy of a story, the reporter and the activist disagreed.
Haimson is a forceful personality, Decker said. He was afraid of making her angry and losing her as a source. So he held off on writing the story. “I was a little bit intimidated to do the story and to talk to Leonie about it.” He said. “I wanted to do it thoughtfully. It was more than just a story about a public school parent sending her kid to private school.”
He was hoping he could convince her to participate in the story. Finally last week, at the urging of his editors, he pulled the trigger on the story. When he told Haimson he was publishing, she published her own blog post. Comments under both posts were mixed, but largely supportive of Haimson.
And that’s fair too, even though Decker’s 1,300-word story practically bends over backward to be fair to Haimson, more than the Post or the Daily News, which both followed up with mean-spirited stories meant to humiliate, did when they tackled the story. It may be that Haimson’s supporters knew the tabloids would take their shots.
Haimson told me on the phone that she received an enormous outpouring of support.
“I never misrepresented myself,” Haimson said. “After September, I never identified myself as a public-school parent.”
But that’s the rub. There was an established narrative about Haimson that in part was the basis of her expertise. In not actively correcting that, Haimson was vulnerable to outside criticism.
In hindsight, she told me, she should have just written a blog post in September about her decision to send her child to private high school.
“I didn’t want to have go into explaining the circumstances,” she said. “I knew that it would provide ammunition for my ideological opponents.”
In reporting the story, Decker and GothamSchools did their due diligence. They didn’t rush the story. They searched for alternatives that allowed them to deliver relevant news to their audience in a way that minimized harm to Haimson’s child. They didn’t name the child or the high school.
Ultimately, if you want to tell a complicated truth and hold the powerful accountable, you have to be willing to hold yourself to that same standard. Even though Haimson’s particular message is that all parents deserve small class sizes, she established her authority through her personal experience as a public school parent.
When that changed, it didn’t invalidate her authority. But it was a noteworthy fact for the many people who regularly participate in the debate over public schools in New York. And GothamSchools stepped up and reported the story.
Kelly McBride is senior faculty for ethics at The Poynter Institute for Media Studies. She specializes in journalism’s transformation and its impact on democracy.