More Honest Discussions With The Media: When You Can’t Say Anything

Last time, we left off with what both local San Antonio news media

and school district spokespeople learned about the limitations under which they both work. More specifically what information you can release and what you cannot. To many reporters, not being able to speak about what happened to an individual, a student many times, leaves a story incomplete and worse yet, gives the impression a spokesperson is hiding something (insert a wa-wa sound effect). To be honest, when I worked as a reporter, that’s the reaction I had many times too, but you have to also make that judgment in the context of your knowledge of the person you’re asking. In other words, how much do you trust them?

“…for instance, if a student’s inappropriate behavior results in a suspension or transfer to an alternative school campus, the district representative by law is prohibited from revealing that.”

The truth is, legally, many times a spokesperson for a school district or government agency may, in fact, have their hands tied, or more accurately, their mouths zipped. The reason is, at least in the education world, student privacy laws termed FERPA, prohibit them from speaking about a student in reference to most personal, academic or behavioral information unless permission is given by that individual or it’s been revealed by that individual themselves. So, for instance, if a student’s inappropriate behavior results in a suspension or transfer to an alternative school campus, the district representative by law is prohibited from revealing that. They can say the consequence was appropriate, swift and according to policy, but beyond that, opens yourself up to legal action.

In only isolated cases have I ever been allowed to speak on the record about a student’s case to a reporter. That was only because I secured written legal permission to give the district’s side of a story. I will say that was extremely helpful, but very rare.

Next time…some useful information we picked up from the media folks about dialing up our chances for getting air time.

Steve Linscomb worked in the news media for 28 years. Since 2012, he has served as an official spokesperson for a public school district in the San Antonio metro area and is a freelance writer.

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